University of Wyoming

People meander through the University of Wyoming commons area in January 2017. Lawmakers will consider a bill next month that would limit the scope of a tuition program for veterans. 

File, Star-Tribune

A bill sponsored by a legislative committee would make money-saving changes to a program that pays for college degrees for veterans and their relatives.

The changes would result in new limits on the scope of the program. But one lawmaker said those changes are needed to preserve the program’s future amid the state’s ongoing fiscal problems.

The measure, titled Senate File 36 and sponsored by the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, is similar to a bill that failed last session. It would change the program to fund only tuition and not fees, would require veterans be pursuing a degree or certificate “at the same or lower educational level than the student has previously earned,” and would provide money only for the University of Wyoming or one of the state’s community colleges. It would also only pay the undergraduate tuition rate for eight semesters instead of 10.

The free tuition program is available to “any person who is a Vietnam veteran ... an overseas combat veteran, a combat veteran surviving spouse or a combat veteran dependent.” Vietnam vets receiving education benefits from a federal program are not eligible.

Wyoming’s community college commission reimburses UW and the community colleges for the tuition costs, according to the bill and statute.

Rep. Landon Brown, a Cheyenne Republican who supported the bill, said it “was the right thing to do” to protect the future of the program, given the state’s tight fiscal situation. The program costs more than $1 million over each two-year budget period. The bill was projected to save as much as $344,000 over that time, according to committee minutes.

“It’s a tough program to continue to sell when the state is strapped for cash,” he said.

The change allowing only free tuition — and not covering fees, which are assessed at both UW and the community colleges — would mean veterans had “skin in the game,” Brown said.

He added that the program’s intended purpose had been stretched in the past, hence the change allowing it to only pay UW’s undergraduate rate.

“Participants in the past were using these for pharmaceutical degrees, law degrees,” he said. “That’s not what this program was intended for. (The bill) is saying, we’d pay for that, but you’re only going to get the undergraduate rate.”

Brown said the bill was supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and by the American Legion. He said some individual veterans had felt the program was something promised to them. That concern is why lawmakers included a provision in the bill essentially grandfathering in veterans who were already in the program or were about to enroll.

Any veteran already participating or who signs up before July 1 would remain eligible for current benefits, like payments for fees and coverage for 10 semesters.

Given that provision, Brown said officials expect an influx of participants over the coming months as veterans enroll in the program while it offers its current benefits. He said in a few years, the savings will be felt.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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