State sticking colleges with tab for veterans' grants

State sticking colleges with tab for veterans' grants

It's a guaranteed benefit, so veterans don't need to worry about it vanishing

CHAMPAIGN — Colleges and universities in Illinois are rapidly assuming a growing portion of the costs of awarding grants to veterans as the General Assembly backs away from funding the program, a trend many expect will continue.

For more than 40 years, the Illinois Veteran Grant program has promised to cover tuition and fees for Illinois veterans working toward a college degree. As the state's budget problems escalated and the deficit grew in recent years, reimbursements to colleges and universities dwindled. In 2014, Illinois colleges and universities are projected to file with the state claims totaling almost $32.5 million; the amount expected to be paid to them is $750,000.

Next year doesn't look any better.

Budget bills proposed so far for 2015 have not included any amounts for the Illinois Veteran Grant program.

The program, which dates back to 1967, is classified as an entitlement, meaning even if the General Assembly does not approves an appropriation for the program, it continues. Qualified Illinois veterans will still be able to apply to the program and have their tuition and fees waived while pursuing their degrees, area financial aid directors said.

It is not a benefit that will go away. Several school officials called it an "unfunded mandate."

During years when the state funnels little or no money to colleges and universities to reimburse them for the tuition and fee waivers, the cost of the program shifts to those institutions. And that comes at a time when such institutions, especially community colleges, face tight budgets and have had to hike tuition to make up for revenue shortfalls.

"Schools want to serve the vets. We're glad the program is there and we're glad they choose to come to our school," said Janet Ingargiola, director of financial aid with Danville Area Community College.

However, "it's a squeeze for community colleges who are already tight on money," she admitted.

The amount of tuition and fees the Danville college has awarded veterans has risen in recent years. The school awarded $91,034 under the Illinois Veterans Grant program to its student veterans in 2011-2012, $94,100 in 2012-2013 and $128,000 for the current school year, according to Ingargiola.

Parkland College and the University of Illinois also have waived a growing amount in tuition and fees for veterans.

Tim Wendt, Parkland's director of financial aid and veterans services, estimates the college will award about $600,000 to its veterans this year through the grant program. The Illinois Community College board is expected to reimburse the college about $57,000, which leaves about $554,000 that Parkland will essentially absorb this year.

"They've been shorting us for years," Wendt said of the state. The community college board money does help a bit, "but it's a drop in the bucket compared to what the total cost is," he said.

Parkland is home to about 350 veterans, and many choose the Illinois Veteran Grant program.

"We could do so much more if we were getting the (state payments). Half a million dollars is huge for us," Wendt said.

In its new Student Services Center, which will open this summer, Parkland has planned its first dedicated space for veterans. It's not tucked into a closet-sized space in the interior of the building, but is a separate room near offices where vets can register for classes and meet with advisors or counselors about financial aid or other issues.

Wendt, himself a veteran, used the Illinois Veteran Grant and federal benefits to pay for his schooling in the '80s.

"It was very attractive to me. I was pleased when I heard about it. I didn't know about the state program. They were paying schools to educate us," he said.

Financial aid counselors will review what options are available to the veterans. What they end up using can depend on their education plans, such as if they plan to continue on to graduate school, said Dan Mann, director of financial aid at the University of Illinois.

The Illinois Veteran Grant pays tuition and fees at two and four-year colleges for eligible Illinois veterans. Veterans apply through the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the state agency that oversees financial aid programs.

To be eligible, veterans must meet several criteria. The benefit can be used at any public school, university or community college, in the state. Depending on their situation, some veterans can choose instead to use their federal veterans benefits, such as the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which offers some advantages, such as allowing the veteran to transfer eligibility to a spouse or dependent. (The Illinois grant is not transferable.)

"Many vets have multiple benefits and pick the one that best meets their needs," said Mann, who indicated that about 270 veterans use the Illinois Veteran Grant at the UI.

The UI has not received any money from the state in the last fiscal year or the current one for the grant program. Last year's dollar amount for veterans came to $3.9 million — almost $3.1 million for Illinois Veteran Grant program claims, in addition to funds for the National Guard, IVG and a small number of MIA/POW and grants.

"I do not foresee us getting paid in the upcoming future unless something changes with the budget situation," Mann said.

"In the long run, (the unpaid claims) goes into the overall unit costs of running the college. When you keep getting shorted, we need to ask the questions, such as, do we need to raise tuition and fees? We've been fortunate. We have not cut programs or gotten rid of faculty" to make up for the amount not coming from the state, Ingargiola said.

What's important to remember, she said, is the program is guaranteed and veterans shouldn't worry. Veterans will continue to receive their benefits. Colleges and universities will award veterans regardless of if the state sends its payments to the institutions or not, she said.

 Projected unpaid claims for 2014 for the Illinois Veteran Grant program.

This is the amount the colleges awarded to veterans in the program to cover tuition and fees. Years ago the state would reimburse state institutions for these costs, but not recently.
  • University of Illinois: $3.1 million.
  • Parkland College: $600,000.
  • Danville Area Community College: $128,000.

 History of appropriation for the Illinois Veteran Grant

Year State appropriation Claims from colleges Reimbursement Community college board expenses Claims minus reimbursement
2007 $19.25 million $35.5 million $19.2 million $0 $16.3 million
2008 $19.25 million $38 million $19.2 million $5.5 million $18.8 million
2009 $19.25 million $40 million $19.2 million $6.1 million $20.7 million
2010 $16.85 million $38.7 million $16.8 million $7.3 million $14.6 million
2011 $0 $34.7 million $0 $7.3 million $27.5 million
2012 $6 million $33 million $11.4 million $7.3 million $14.3 million
2013 $0 $32.7 million $0 $750,000 $32 million
2014 $0* $32.5 million $0 $750,000 $31.7 million
2015 $0*        

* Projected

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