In Virginia, college costs military families more

By Miriam Stawowy Newport News (Va.) Daily Press (KRT) NEWPORT NEWS, Va. _ The mobile, pack-up-and-go life of a military family isn’t easy. But Melissa Crank didn’t expect it to be harder when she came to Virginia. The wife of a senior captain in the U.S. Army, Crank has moved five times in the past eight years. From Alabama to Louisiana, a short stay in Virginia, then off to Colorado. A year ago, her husband was assigned to Fort Monroe. Crank wants to become an elementary teacher, so she began taking classes in Louisiana. Then in Colorado, paying affordable tuition as an in-state student. But back in Virginia, Crank discovered the rules were quite different. Here, she must pay the higher tuition of a nonresident. “You’re kidding me, right?” she told Christopher Newport University admissions officials who broke the news. This is the dilemma of numerous military families on the move. Unless her husband establishes legal domicile in Virginia or Crank works full-time for one year and pays state taxes, she can’t pay in-state tuition. “We’re asking sons and daughters to lay down their lives, and then they charge us out-of-state,” Crank said. “I hope more people will become aware that this is how we’re saying `thank you.’ There are some people out there who are not complaining or not even getting an education. The lawmakers need to realize that their law is wrong.” In-state tuition eligibility was the No. 1 concern at a discussion last year on improving the lives of military families in the U.S. Army, said Michael Tevnan, education specialist at the Department of the Army’s headquarters in Alexandria. That is why the Army will soon make a strong pitch to different states _ including Virginia, which has one of the highest populations of military families in the country _ urging them to relax rules for military spouses and children. “The Army sees this as a family well-being issue,” Tevnan said. It can affect whether service members stay in the military and can also drain a family’s finances, he added. On average, service members move every two to three years, placing special stress on families, Tevnan said. It also makes it difficult for a service member’s spouse or child to qualify for more affordable in-state rates, even as the cost of a college education skyrockets and mobility increases. “We’re asking much more of our military, including a war and defense against terrorism,” Tevnan said. “Soldiers are not afraid to pay their way for their families. What they do find is that the Army doesn’t leave them in one spot.” Most states already have the flexibility to grant in-state tuition, Tevnan said. But fewer than 15 address the Army’s three main requests: _ Allowing all service members who leave one state to immediately qualify for in-state tuition in the new state. _ Ensuring that service members who leave their home state will always qualify for in-state tuition when they return home. _ Helping military spouses and their children retain their eligibility for in-state rates in one state when the military member moves alone to another state. Virginia would need to change its laws to meet the Army’s key points, Tevnan said. In the early 1990s, Virginia granted in-state tuition to military families, but suspended the practice when it discovered it was losing $5 million a year. State-supported universities and colleges have been hit hard with millions in budget cuts during the commonwealth’s ongoing financial crisis. “We realize that it’s a cost issue,” Tevnan said. “It’s a revenue issue. It’s about money. It’s a ticklish issue today, especially for universities.” “It’s a tough issue,” agreed Lee Andes, financial aid manager with the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia. “I get calls about this very thing from frustrated (military) spouses.” Periodically, legislators introduce bills to relax tuition rules for military families, but none have passed. “There are people who have recognized a need, but they haven’t come up with a solution that meets all of the concerns,” Andes said. State Del. Phillip Hamilton, R-Newport News, tried his luck by unsuccessfully sponsoring several bills over the years. “There’s a lot of resentment for making it happen,” Hamilton said. “The biggest objection is that some feel they need to be Virginia residents and pay income taxes.” Hamilton disagrees. Virginia makes exceptions for foreign exchange students, he argues, but not for its own military. “They do pay taxes, just not income taxes, necessarily,” Hamilton said. “Virginia gets the most per capita income because of the military. We love to have `em here, and yet we are reluctant to grant them in-state tuition.” The Army’s push might bring about change, as could the state’s congressional delegation, Hamilton added. Last month, Crank filed an appeal with CNU, asking officials to make their own determination about her in-state eligibility. She believes the college has the leeway to consider her case individually. She has a Virginia driver’s license, owns a home with her husband, pays taxes and lives in the state. Her husband isn’t willing to change domicile, and she doesn’t have a source of income because she takes care of their two daughters, ages 4 and 7. However, that will change when she starts working as a teacher. Frequently changing legal domicile is a touchy issue for military families, Crank said. “Uncle Sam doesn’t like it when you change to other states,” she said. “Military families need to decide where they want to return.” For the Cranks, that place is Texas, where her husband plans to retire. Paying out-of-state tuition has placed a financial burden on the family. With CNU’s teaching program closing this spring, Crank has had to become a full-time student to meet all her requirements. That’s meant paying for day care. Although her husband’s Army pay is good, she had to take out a student loan to pay off the $17,000 she will owe in tuition. Once she’s a teacher, she’ll be making less than $35,000 a year. “I want to teach in the very state that is saying, `We don’t like you,’ ” Crank said. “The bottom line of the whole thing is money.” ___ ‘copy 2003, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.). Visit, the World Wide Web site of the Daily Press at and on America Online at keyword “dailypress.” Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.