Student Veterans Face Excess Tuition Costs

August 26, 2013

Post-9/11 Iraq war veteran Brian Oller has spent more than $22,000 to pay out-of-state tuition at the University of California, San Diego. The Lubbock, Texas, native said he hopes to get in-state tuition this fall after appealing to the college’s residence deputy. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Cave-News21)

By Anthony Cave and Meg Wagner, News21

Since 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has rewarded veterans with free college education, but there is a catch.

Brian Oller liked the weather, so he moved out west to attend the University of California, San Diego. The 31-year-old Iraqi war veteran assumed the GI Bill covered all fees at any state school, but three days before his classes started, he was sticker shocked.

Oller was classified as a nonresident. He had to pay out-of-state tuition, and now, after a year, he owes more than $22,000.

"I didn't know about the out-of-state tuition until the day I showed up. That was a shock, that was a kick in the gut," Oller said. "You know, I was working with so many people, nobody ever mentioned 'hey man you're going to be on the hook.' I thought it's a public school, they recieve federal funds."

The GI Bill only covers the maximum in-state tuition rate, and state policies differ on whether veterans have to establish a year of residency to get that lower rate.

Twenty one states, including Arizona, waive the residency requirement. Arizona Department of Veterans Services director Ted Vogt explained.

"The state of Arizona will waive the residency requirement provided that an honorably discharged veterans show some sort of intent to reside in the state. And some of the things that show an intent to reside in the state now are getting a license, registering to vote, you know, certainly buying a house or tranferring your finances to an Arizona bank," Vogt said. 

Still, more than half of the states have no waiver. That means veterans, like Oller, may have to make up a huge difference. Oller works odd jobs as a handyman, trying to pay down his debt.

"It wears on you. It's hard. It's difficult to sit in class and pay attention and go on and on with your work, with your studies, with this nagging question in the back of your head, 'Can I even afford to be here?'" Oller said.

Federal legislation may help Oller’s situation. Congress is considering the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act. It would grant in-state tuition to veterans at all public colleges.

The bill co-sponsor, Florida Congressman Jeff Miller, said veterans defended all 50 states, so their educational benefits “should reflect that.”

Note: This story is part of a collaboration between KJZZ and News21, a national reporting project on veterans’ issues at Arizona State University.

Updated 8/27/13 at 9:30 p.m.