Last spring, I interviewed a returning veteran from Iraq for a narrative journalism project, and my task was to get his story in his own words. He was a former Marine who took part in the initial invasion in Iraq. The story I heard from him was heart-rending and eye-opening in many ways. But most importantly, it was my first introduction to the widely ignored issue that many returning veterans face when coming back home, specifically veterans from the state of Michigan: not being officially recognized as Michigan residents once they’ve returned from overseas service.
This initial account shocked me. It seemed as though there was just some loophole in the system that no one caught. Or this was an isolated case. The fact that someone can spend their entire life living and paying taxes in this state, go overseas to serve the country and then come back to find they’re no longer a resident of their state is, quite frankly, a little ridiculous.
And yet, that’s exactly what the situation is. Despite a lack of awareness it’s a huge injustice to those who’ve given so much for this country.
Not only does this hurt veterans when it comes to reintegrating into civilian life and gaining skills for careers, but it also provides an added stress in a time when they really don’t need to have one. It’s enough to ask of someone who has just returned from war to adjust to a new environment and lifestyle, while coping with the realities of war they’ve just seen. But to ask them to figure out the technicalities of their residency status is just too much.
The veteran I spoke to didn’t even know he wouldn’t be considered a Michigan resident when he returned. He had spent his entire life in the state and went through 12 years of public schooling, only to come back and realize he didn’t qualify for in-state tuition at the public universities.
And the sad truth is that this inevitably affected his college decision.
Inaccessibility to college is already a growing problem in this country. With rising tuition costs, there’s an increasing number of students who simply can’t afford to pursue a higher education. Add in the huge gap at many public institutions between what in-state and out-of-state students pay and you’ll see the extent of the problem. It’s unfair to ask someone who, for all intents and purposes, has been a Michigan resident his or her entire life, to pay the substantial differences, especially considering he or she was overseas serving the country.
While many argue that the GI Bill is in place to help accommodate returning veterans, a closer look offers a different explanation. Yes, the GI Bill offers added tuition assistance to returning veterans beyond just what the military provides. However, according to the new post-9/11 GI Bill, those who enroll at publicly owned colleges and universities receive up to 100 percent of “in-state” tuition covered, while those at a privately operated college or out-of-state colleges receive only up to $17,500 on tuition. Again, we see this disparity that shouldn’t exist.
Thankfully, this issue has finally come to light. There’s an initiative by lawmakers to see that returning veterans are given in-state status at Michigan universities. Proposed by state Rep. David Knezek, these joint resolutions would provide active duty, reserve or honorary discharged service members with in-state tuition at any Michigan university. Knezek cited measures from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, stating that Michigan ranks 53 in veteran’s access to benefits. Yes, we’re behind Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. Needless to say these measures are much needed.
Some progress is being made at the national level. According to The Navy Times, in January, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that “would bar public colleges and universities from being approved to receive any veterans’ education benefits unless they charge the same rate of tuition and fees for nonresident veterans as they do for in-state students.”
It’s commendable that this issue has finally come to light, but that isn’t enough. Now it’s essential to ensure that the necessary measures are passed so that residency status is never a worry for returning veterans. These are individuals who have given so much for the country — the least we can do is make their transition back home a little bit easier.
Harsha Nahata can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.