Sunday, May 26, 2024

Lawmakers combat rising college costs for veterans 

by BIZ Magazine

By Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator

A Louisiana legislative committee unanimously advanced two bills Thursday to make college more affordable for military veterans. 

The House Education Committee signed off on House Bill 485, sponsored by Rep. Ken Brass, D-Vacherie, to create the Louisiana National Guard Patriot Scholarship Program, which would cover the cost of mandatory college fees for Louisiana National Guard members. The bill is among Gov. John Bel Edwards’ legislative priorities for the year. 

Universities have turned to mandatory fees to supplement their budgets amid restrictions on tuition increases and cuts to state spending on higher education. 

At LSU, fees for an undergraduate student taking a 12-hour course load are nearly $2,000, which equals about 50% of in-state tuition. 

Louisiana National Guard members are already exempted from paying tuition at state colleges and universities. 

Tuition waivers have traditionally been a primary incentive used for National Guard recruitment, but its leaders fear the increase in uncovered fees makes it harder to attract new members.

“The Patriot Scholarship not only creates a path for military service, but it also creates an opportunity for citizens to earn their education,” said Maj. Gen. Lee Hopkins, assistant adjutant general for the Louisiana National Guard. 

Brass’ bill goes next to the House floor.

The committee also approved House Bill 167 by Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, that would provide a tuition waiver for disabled veterans. 

In its original form, Cox’s proposal would have only applied to veterans who have a 100% disability classification, a relatively small pool of people. The bill was amended in committee to provide waivers to any disabled veteran. 

Cox, himself a retired, disabled U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, said he proposed the amendment because he felt every disabled veteran deserved the waiver. 

“They come back to try to make their lives better,” Cox said, “and things are hard because some of them have post traumatic stress. Some of them have other disabilities.” 

A 2021 U.S. Census Bureau report indicated that approximately 20% of veterans receive disability compensation payments. Approximately 300,000 veterans live in Louisiana, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs, meaning as many as 60,000 individuals would be eligible for the tuition waiver. 

Due to the increase in the number of eligible veterans, the committee referred Cox’s bill to the Appropriations Committee and recommended it receive an updated fiscal note, which would report on the bill’s impact to the state budget

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