After serving 14 months in Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Hayleigh Perez planned to use her GI Bill benefits to get a master’s degree and become a physician’s assistant. When she enlisted, the government was paying for any veteran who signed up after Sept. 11 to go to any public university in America.
When she got out, she got screwed. Twice. A change in the GI bill forced Perez to apply to in-state schools if she wanted free tuition, and then a university in her home state of North Carolina determined that she wasn’t a resident—because she’d spent two years with her active-duty husband Jose in Texas, where he was reassigned in 2009.
Perez is one of the 250,000 post-9/11 soldiers and veterans nationwide that the North Carolina–based nonprofit Student Veterans Advocacy Group estimates have been forced to pay an average of $10,000 each in out-of-state tuition costs as a result of a cost-cutting change to the GI bill last year.
Perez, now 26, enlisted in the Army in 2005 not because she couldn’t get into college or find a job but because she felt like it was her turn, she said. She spent 14 months patching up U.S. soldiers and Iraqi prisoners at Camp Bucca, then a detention facility in southeast Iraq.
Perez left the Army with an honorable discharge in 2009. Later that year, the Army sent Jose to Texas, and she went with him—the couple leaving their house in North Carolina behind. The couple didn’t apply for residency there, and petitioned the Army to return them as quickly as possible to the Tar Heel State, where they have paid property taxes since 2008 and where they’re still both registered to vote.
When Perez applied to the University of North Carolina’s Pembroke campus last fall, she was stunned to learn that the school didn’t consider her a resident of the state—because she wasn’t “physically present” in North Carolina at the time she applied, having spent 2010 and 2011 in Texas. When Jose received orders sending the couple back home to North Carolina, she decided it was time to enroll in school there.
“This is where we are going to make our lives together,” Perez said. “This is our home.”
But because Perez had been in Texas, the school determined that Perez didn’t qualify for in-state tuition—which ultimately led to her raiding her two-year-old daughter Calleigh’s college fund for the $4,605 it cost to attend classes at Pembroke that semester.
“It was really hurtful. I was being rejected by somewhere I fought to return to … because this was our home,” said Perez. “But apparently, I don’t have a state of residence. I’m an alien.”
Before Congress’s changes to the GI Bill, the college’s decision wouldn’t have affected Perez.
The first GI Bill, officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, paid tuition and living expenses for vets to attend college or vocational education upon successful completion of their service. That initial act ended in 1956, but the term “GI Bill” has since become an umbrella term for a plethora of laws granting benefits to veterans ever since. In 1985, what’s known as the Montgomery GI Bill expanded the prior version, allowing honorably discharged veterans to forfeit $100 a month from their first year of military pay in exchange for a tuition allowance and monthly stipend to be spent on up to three years of training or education. In 2008, Congress passed an expansion in benefits known as the “Post-9/11 GI Bill” that applies only to veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, and that covered the full cost of any public college.
But then the law changed again last year, when Congress watered down the benefit so that it only covered in-state tuition—meaning Perez had to prove residency if she wanted her tuition covered.
The bottom line: while the G.I. Bill pays $17,500 to students in any private schools, regardless of its location, it now charges out-of-state veterans and public universities of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. And it lets each school determine for itself who is or is not a resident, and thus eligible for in-state tuition. While other states have passed bills to help veterans pay for public colleges, North Carolina isn’t one of them.
Perhaps naively, Perez assumed Pembroke had made a mistake, especially since Fayetteville State University had granted her in-state tuition. So she enrolled at Pembroke, paying the out-of-state rate of $4,603 for a single semester, in the hopes that she could successfully appeal the decision.
But the school’s Residency Appeals Committee and then the State Residency Committee denied her appeal, so she enrolled in a private school and started a change.org petition calling on the UNC Board of Governors to change its policies. The petition has 144,745 signatures as of Saturday.
Joni Worthington, the university’s vice president for communications, declined to provide specifics about Perez to The Daily Beast. In previous interviews and statements, the university has offered several conflicting explanations about why, exactly, Perez didn’t qualify for in-state tuition.
While his group has successfully appealed the North Carolina university system’s residency decisions 32 times in the past year, according to Sgt. Jason Thigpen, a National Guardsman and the founder of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, Perez didn’t find out about the group until after her appeals had been denied.
Perez suspects Pembroke held her status as a stay-at-home mom against her, since it meant that she hadn’t paid income taxes—one of the criteria universities use to determine residency—in North Carolina while her husband was stationed in Texas.
But Thigpen believes the university is simply looking out for its bottom line.
“It has to be about money,” he said. “North Carolina has one of the most federally subsidized education systems in the country, which is why the UNC system schools are able to offer such a low tuition, versus many other public institutions in other states.”
In order to qualify for those subsidies, Thigpen said, the schools must maintain an 85–15 ratio of in-state to out-of-state students. Veterans, though—even those paying out-of-state tuition—aren’t factored into that formula.
“They’re double-dipping,” Thigpen said.
Perez was a radiology specialist in that Iraqi prison, which put her in the strange position of treating both the soldiers wounded by the enemy and the enemy who did the wounding. It was not an easy post, but she got through it.
Now, she says, her country is failing to properly say “thanks.”