Everyone from Florida’s governor and VA secretary to state lawmakers likes to call Florida the most veteran-friendly state in the nation.
Some veterans are saying, "Okay, prove it."
Student veterans are challenging lawmakers and the governor to pass legislation that would give them a break on college tuition. Almost a dozen states give military veterans in-state tuition waivers even if they’ve just moved there.
That’s the experience of Andrew Napier, who served six years in the Army National Guard and is now applying to medical school at the University of South Florida.
“I’m coming from Kentucky. They were able to give it to the veterans,” Napier said. “We have lawmakers there that say, 'Hey, we support veterans," but this is backed up by a law.
Napier is a Pat Tillman Military Scholar. It’s a competitive scholarship named after the NFL player who quit his professional football career and joined the military after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Tillman Scholars are veterans recognized for their academic and military excellence, as well as their ongoing community service and advocacy for veterans.
Napier said it's time for Florida lawmakers to pass in-state tuition for veterans.
“There needs to be substance behind the words that say that ‘veteran friendly.’ Just to say something is one thing, but actually to act on this is going to be very beneficial to the people not just to veterans but to the community,” Napier said.
Bills that would establish in-state tuition for veterans have been proposed previously but never passed. This year, SB260 by Senator Jack Latvala would grant veterans in-state tuition rates.
It’s a benefit already extended to active-duty military.
Kiersten Downs, a veteran of the Air Force and New York Air National Guard, is president of the USF student veterans group.
“It’s becoming a hot-button issue again,” Downs said. “We are talking to student government here at USF who is diligently working to advocate and push this issue for student veterans.”
Downs said there are roughly 1,400 veterans and dependents receiving GI education benefits at USF. As a doctoral student, she knows what it’s like when those benefits are used up.
“I am a graduate assistant so I do have a tuition waiver at this time,” Downs said. “Once that runs out, I will have to pay out-of-state tuition. From my understanding, the only way to get in-state is to drop out of school for a year and work and gain the in-state tuition status.”
Or like some of her friends, Downs said, the other choice is to leave the state which means a brain-drain of educated and battle tested veterans.
“I have friends who are graduates who are actually moving back to the State of Texas to go to graduate school because of the more friendly veteran friendly environment and in-state tuition offered there,” Downs said.
Student veterans are usually older with families looking to put down roots. Napier said they are the kind of residents Florida should try to keep.
“So if Florida wants to be more attractive to veterans and wants to keep people around and have sustainable income, lower that tuition,” Napier said.
Neither Downs nor Napier had an estimate on what it would cost to extend in-state tuition to all veterans in Florida. However, both said the cost would be worth it for Florida’s future.