Youngkin, legislators propose changes to military waivers

Illustration by Killian Goodale-Porter.

Natalie Collins, Contributing Writer

Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed a $24 million funding boost for the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependent Education Program tuition waivers on April 8, according to WAVY. However, legislators sought to change the eligibility requirements for the program in Senate Bill 347.

The VMSDEP provides waived tuition and fees at Virginia public colleges and universities for the spouses and children of military service members killed, missing in action, taken prisoner or who became at least 90% permanently disabled as a result of military service, according to the program’s website.

However, costs for the program have mounted. The State Council for Higher Education of Virginia estimates the program has been growing between 40% to 60% every year up to $66.4 million in 2023, according to WAVY.

Some university administrators have petitioned lawmakers for action to sustain the VMSDEP program long-term, according to a previous report by The Commonwealth Times.

During the VCU 2022-23 fiscal year, 439 students received tuition assistance from the VMSDEP program, totalling $720,913 in waived tuition, according to the Division of Veterans’ Services’ annual report.

The legislator’s proposed changes would add new eligibility criteria to the VMSDEP, including limiting tuition waivers to families with a total household income below $134,800 per year, according to SB 347, whose provisions were folded into the Virginia state budget.

Another change in the budget restricts the waivers until after all other state financial aid is applied, including the expected family contribution. It also requires potential beneficiaries to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to the bill.

The FAFSA has been the subject of criticism as of late for the botched rollout of a streamlined version, according to The Hill.

Military advocacy group Friends of VMSDEP has pushed back against adding new eligibility hurdles it views as breaking faith with America’s veterans.

“This will effectively turn a benefit earned by the veteran through service, sacrifice and sometimes including the very ultimate one — death in uniform — into a need-based one,” Friends of VMSDEP stated in a press release.

The governor’s amendment to include $24 million to support the extra costs will provide additional operating support to minimize in-state undergraduate tuition increases, improve retention and graduation and increase degree production in high-demand programs, according to Youngkin’s budget amendment.

However, the governor and Democratic legislators recently agreed to seek out a new budget, with everything back on the negotiating table. The new budget is to be submitted on May 13, according to The Washington Post.

Celina Bolanos, a fourth-year kinetic imaging student and a VMSDEP beneficiary through their father, a retired Marine, said the proposed changes rubbed them the wrong way.

“Things like income and stuff, that doesn’t erase the fact that they still suffered government-induced disabilities,” Bolanos said.

Bolanos said the changes run contrary to Virginia’s support for its large veteran population — nearly 615,000, according to Axios.

“It’s just kind of odd to take that away from such a vulnerable population,” Bolanos said. “Not too many people are on the program, so it shouldn’t be too big of an expense.”

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