Boost sought for veterans college plan

State senators also want better tracking of costs

By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News (Texas)
September 30, 2004

AUSTIN - With the war in Iraq expected to produce more veterans eligible for free state college tuition, senators Wednesday said Texas should look at expanding the program's scope and funding - and proposed a better way to track how much it costs.

The Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations recommended the Legislature fund a database to track the Hazlewood Act, a program available to wartime veterans who have exhausted federal education benefits such as the GI Bill.

For eligible veterans, it means free tuition and free or reduced fees for up to 150 credit hours at public Texas colleges and universities. It also applies to the children of military members who die due to their service.

"It's more than just saying thanks for a service done," said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, the committee chairwoman. "The biggest economic development tool any city and county and town in this state can have is someone with a college degree."

The program's costs, which have risen in the past decade, are absorbed by colleges and universities. Senators said they've gotten conflicting figures on those amounts and said no one knows the total number of eligible veterans.

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 8,556 veterans took part in the program in 2002-03, at a cost of nearly $10.6 million.

That's fewer than in 1993-94, when 9,474 enrolled. But the cost has more than doubled since then. The committee in a draft report noted the cost of tuition has increased.

The panel said the Legislature should consider measures to help with costs - increasing state funding, or possibly a specialized license plate, with sales proceeds going to colleges.

Some institutions reported different figures to the coordinating board and the committee, senators said. The board listed the University of Texas at San Antonio, for example, as having 378 Hazlewood students at a cost of $201,739 in 2002-03. But the university told the committee its cost in tuition and fees for Hazlewood was $645,846.

Lisa Blazer, UTSA assistant vice president for financial aid, said the school reported only part of the tuition exemption to the coordinating board. The proposed Web-based database would track use of benefits and list each veteran's Hazlewood eligibility and status. The committee recommended the coordinating board or Texas Veterans Commission administer it, and it estimated it would cost $26,000 to start up and $10,000 annually to maintain.

Program requirements include at least 180 days of active duty and specify that the veteran must have enlisted while a Texas resident. Senators said one factor that could contribute to an "unpredictably priced" bump in program enrollment is the eligibility of National Guard and reserve members now on active-duty deployment under federal auspices.

"The committee has learned that the military has used Hazlewood as a recruiting tool in some cases," the committee report said. Whatever agency administers the database, it should evaluate the administrative and financial feasibility of a proposal to allow veterans to pass on their unused Hazlewood benefits to their children, the panel said.

"This was brought up because so many of our veterans don't use it, so they said if I'm entitled to this ... particularly since higher education costs are just skyrocketing, can I allocate this to one of my children?" Van de Putte said.

pfikac@express-news.net