Legislative Preview: Student Veterans Call for Out-of-State Tuition Waivers
February 27th, 2014 | WFSU, Tampa- Florida's elected officials love to brag that they are "the most veteran friendly state" in the nation. Yet, for the past two years student veterans at state colleges and universities have watched as lawmakers refused to pass bills allowing veterans in-state tuition waivers. The third time may be the charm as the Veteran Tuition Waiver Program goes before the 2014 legislative session.
[Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kelly Matisi (middle) poses in her dress uniform with her brother and mother. Photo- Kelly Matisi]
The senate bill - Senate Bill 84 - has been named after recently passed Pinellas County Congressman C. W. Bill Young.
One might ask: why such a fuss? Why should Florida lawmakers give out-of-state veterans in-state tuition when a legislative analysis shows it affects only about 500 veterans at state colleges and universities?
One answer: Kelly Matisi who transferred to the University of South Florida from Texas – a state that does give veterans in-state tuition.
"I went from paying about $1300 a semester, last semester I paid about $8400 and this semester it’s just over $8500 for 14 credit hours of school," says Matisi.
The 9-year Marine veteran was a combat engineer who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We didn’t serve the state of Florida we didn’t serve the state of Texas we served the United States," she says.
"It’s the US Army, US Marines. We kind of feel like picking and choosing based on where you enlisted- it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense."
Matisi is considered an out-of-state student until she establishes residency and lives a full 12 months in Florida. She says the lack of a tuition waiver is driving away veterans and future college graduates who might otherwise stay in Florida.
"I work in the office of veteran services we’ve gotten calls from veterans asking that very question do you guys give in state tuition to veterans and I have to tell them no," says Matisi.
"And you can hear it in their voice it’s like ‘Oh, okay.’ It’s like okay never mind. So you’re turning away a lot of people who would love to come here and get an education."
One thing student veterans have going for them is their training. They come from a team culture that never says quit. That’s the attitude USF student veterans association president Ray Mollison adopted when the in-state tuition bill died in a senate committee last year.
"We do have a huge veteran population just in the Tampa area we have 1700 veterans on campus at USF," says Mollison.
And their voices are being heard. House Speaker Will Weatherford in December was predicting passage of the tuition waiver for out-of-state student vets.
"I think it’s important that we give our veterans the opportunity to go back to school to get the education that they need in the 21st century to make sure they can find employment," said Weatherford.
"These are men and women who have served our country admirably across the country and across the world. And we owe that to them and I feel very confident that we’ll get it done this year."
It’s the number one legislative priority for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs according to executive director Mike Prendergast.
"This year we’ve got great sponsors in both chambers and that bill is moving forward with pretty good speed, lots of support," says Prendergast.
"We’re hopeful for an early vote on that in March actually to get that through a floor vote and get that passed," he says.
Prendergast says giving out-of-state veterans a waiver is an investment in the state’s future.
"It means a heck of a lot to those veterans and their family members who come from out of state and want to make Florida their home," says Prendergast.
Separate bills are working their way through the house and senate but both offer tuition waivers to out-of-state student veterans who are living and going to school in Florida.