Virginia Governor Directs Task Force to Review 'Unintended Consequences' of Changes to Military Tuition Waivers

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, left, answers addresses the crowd prior to signing the budget bill that was passed by both chambers at the Capitol Monday May. 13, 2024, in Richmond, Va. Senate Finance Committee Chairman, State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, right, listens. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday directed a stakeholder task force to address “unintended consequences” of significant changes to the military survivor and dependent tuition waiver that he approved when he signed the biennial budget bill into law.

Youngkin approved changes Monday to Virginia’s Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program under a blanket waivers and related stipends section on page 641 of the 682-page second chapter of the budget. Accordingly, the military survivor and dependent tuition waiver — as well as all other tuition waiver and stipend programs — will no longer be available to graduate students, and qualifying undergraduate students will have to apply for and use other eligible federal and state financial aid first.

The program provides a tuition waiver and an annual stipend to spouses and children of veterans who are killed, missing in action, taken prisoner or at least 90% permanently disabled as a result of military service or combat. Advocates for the program have denounced legislating major changes through the budget process and turning what they say is an earned benefit into need-based aid.

The changes went into effect Wednesday. That same day, Youngkin issued Executive Directive Seven to create a task force to review how the eligibility requirements may impact military families and identify potential changes to be considered by the General Assembly in the future.

“Although the General Assembly’s program eligibility changes are a good-faith effort to ensure the sustainability of VMSDEP for our military families, I have heard from General Assembly members from both sides of the aisle that some of these changes may result in unintended consequences and that the efforts to ensure the long-term health of the program and the preservation of the waiver program would greatly benefit from thorough public engagement with our veteran community, especially our Gold Star families,” Youngkin’s directive said.

Youngkin submitted a proposed amendment in April that would have tasked the stakeholder group with making recommendations on legislative actions and budgetary modifications by November, but it was shot down by the General Assembly.

The reforms were recommended by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to rein in the tuition waivers’ cost, which the council said nearly quadrupled from $12 million in 2019 to $46.3 million in 2022. Hampton Roads universities, and others across the state, have been forced to absorb the lost revenue or spread the cost of the waiver to other students. The cost of the tuition waiver is expected to exceed $13 million at Old Dominion University for the upcoming school year, ODU spokesperson Amber Kennedy said previously.

Lawmakers also approved $40 million to be distributed across two years, Youngkin said, marking the first time funding has been allocated to offset institutions’ loss of revenue from the tuition waiver.

“We must continue to explore ways to support and sustain this important program,” Youngkin’s directive said.

The budget language said the changes, except for the requirement to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, won’t apply to students enrolled in the program over the past year or who committed to their summer or fall 2024 semester by May 15. Youngkin’s directive instructs the task force to make its guidance clear that the program would cover the grandfathered students’ duration of study or until their four-year eligibility is exhausted, whichever comes first.

Virginia lawmakers took issue with the “unrealistic enrollment deadline” in a letter to Youngkin dated Wednesday. They said language in the budget also raised concerns about the program’s ability to uphold the original promises made to the state’s veteran population. The letter was signed by 17 state senators, including Hampton Roads lawmakers Bill DeSteph, Christie Craig and Danny Diggs. The senators supported a comprehensive study of the waiver program to ensure its longevity.

Friends of VMSDEP, a group of volunteer advocates, described the changes to the program as an attack on Gold Star families and disabled veterans and their families. Gold Star families are spouses, children, parents, siblings or others whose loved one died in military service.

“Enough is enough. We rebuke attempts to compel military survivors and disabled veterans to seek financial assistance and incur debt,” the group wrote in an online petition to urge lawmakers to preserve the tuition waiver program. “We reject any notion of categorizing veteran benefits as needs-based aid.”

Caitlyn Burchett,

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