The Overseas Combat Veteran Tuition Program, originally set for elimination after the summer semester, will continue to have funding through the fall 2016 semester.
The Wyoming Community College Commission announced its intention to eliminate the program July 1 because of budget cuts. On Thursday, Gov. Matt Mead announced the program would continue another semester.
“The Governor believes it is important that the state keep its commitments and he wants to give veterans, the colleges and UW an opportunity to review all resources available to assist veterans with higher education costs,” David Bush, communications director for the Office of Gov. Mead, says in an email. “This includes a review of a state-sponsored program providing education assistance for National Guard members. There are federal programs such as the Post 9/11 bill which provides assistance. The Montgomery GI bill is another source of assistance. And other federal programs such as Pell grants may be available.”
This temporary reinstatement is great news for veterans, said Marty Martinez, senior project coordinator with the University of Wyoming Veterans Services Center.
“Under the circumstances, it was the best we could have hoped for at this point,” Martinez said. “It gives veterans time to prepare for any outcome.”
The Overseas Combat Veteran Tuition Program served 427 combat veterans, surviving spouses or dependents by providing 10 free semesters at any Wyoming community college and the University of Wyoming in the 2013-2014 school year including the summer semester. The program costs about $625,000 per year.
Originally, the community college commission worked with legislators to find programs to eliminate, Executive Director Jim Rose said. In the face of more than a $27 million budget cut for the biennium, every dollar saved was invaluable.
“When the directive came, we were directed to provide a priority list,” Rose said.
The veteran tuition program was the last item on the list.
“It had the lowest overall support for us in terms of finding places to reduce,” Rose said.
This list was part of the Penny Plan reduction of 1.5 percent issued by the Legislature in February and not part of Mead’s larger reductions issued in April, Bush says.
“The elimination of the veterans’ tuition reimbursement was part of the agency “penny plan” reduction as required by the 2016 legislative session,” Bush says. “The penny plan reductions were not reviewed with the same level of detail as the much larger cuts required of all agencies by Governor Mead in April.”
The continuation of the program was not on Rose’s radar.
“You don’t set yourself in a position to expect anything,” he said. “It really was the governor’s decision. It wasn’t anything we tried to anticipate.”
The source of the funding is still being evaluated, Bush says.
“The Governor will identify resources within state government to cover the fall 2016 expenses,” Bush says via email. “He has not yet identified the specific resources, but he will not ask for a further reduction in state aid to the colleges to cover the tuition reimbursement expense.”
Extending the program through the fall semester will cost about $264,000, Rose estimated.
“We don’t have the funds to continue this,” Rose said. “We’d have to find a source of funding other than what we have.”
Martinez said he’s hopeful the extension could lead to further funding.
“Personally, I think the change in direction shows the commitment Wyoming has to its veterans,” he said. “We’re very hopeful this is a sign that they’ll continue their commitment and fund the program in the future.”
The community college commission originally cut the program for various reasons, including availability of other support options, Rose said.
“Veterans are not without options,” he said. “The Montgomery GI Bill is available to veterans. Nobody is saying this isn’t a serious consequence, but we are in a very serious budget situation.”
Federal Pell Grants are also available.
A second major reason is the importance of other programs, Rose explained.
“Several of our programs are government mandated,” he said. “We cannot cut those. The lion’s share of our budget goes to direct aid community colleges — that’s about 95 percent of our budget we receive from the state general fund.”
One particularly important program Rose wanted to keep is the adult education program. Marcia Hess manages the program at the Community College Commission.
“This is made up of students learning English as a second language as well as students performing at a low literacy rate up through high school,” she said. “You could say it’s like a K-12 system for adults.”
One major aspect of the free program lets adults obtain a high school equivalency certificate, which Hess expects to gain enrollment in coming years.
“Typically, when we see an economic downturn, we see an uptick of people coming into the program,” she said. “It lets people check up on their skills and go onto post-secondary certificates or education or directly into the job force.”
State support for the program was comparable to the veteran tuition program’s budget, but federal support also contributes about $636,000. The program supported 1,900 students in 2015, Hess said, making the program much more widely used by Wyoming residents.
Rose explained the program is aimed at helping people who have nowhere else to turn.
“About 45,000 people in Wyoming do not possess a high school diploma or equivalent,” he said. “Those people are undereducated and, in most cases, underemployed. The only path they have is through some sort of education.
“We have adult students at or below the poverty line and don’t have any resources to seek out,” Rose continued. “They are long past being eligible for a grant or assistance. We deliver services where people’s positions offer darn few options, and it’s free.”