George Mason drops appeal, Navy vet Stephanie Kermgard wins in-state tuition case


Stephanie Kermgard, a Navy veteran and George Mason student, successfully challenged the school’s ruling that she wasn’t entitled to in-state tuition. George Mason announced it has withdrawn its appeal of that ruling. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

George Mason University has decided not to pursue the appeal of a Fairfax County judge’s ruling that Stephanie Kermgard, a Virginia resident and Navy veteran, was entitled to in-state tuition, a difference of about $18,000 per year. Though the university has won a number of in-state tuition cases at the Virginia Supreme Court, this one involved a veteran, and the Virginia General Assembly just passed a law that essentially gives all veterans in-state tuition. The law goes into effect July 1 and wouldn’t affect Kermgard — she graduates this month — but the university felt the state had made its intentions known toward veterans, and “this is just the best action for everybody involved,” said Renell Wynn, Mason’s vice president for communications and marketing.

Mason officials said they have reached out to all of the university’s 2,300 veterans to let them know of the in-state tuition law change, signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in March, and are preparing a process to review veterans’ status once the law goes into effect.

Kermgard, 29, whom we met a couple of months ago, moved to Charlottesville in 2004, entered the Navy in 2005, saw active duty in the Middle East, and was transferred with her husband to Washington state in 2007. When the couple concluded their service in 2011, they moved back to Virginia.

Even though the law states that “Virginia domicile is not lost when the military member leaves the Commonwealth pursuant to military orders,” and Kermgard had continued to pay Virginia taxes, GMU ruled that she had moved back to Virginia for “educational purposes,” rather than to be a true resident of the Old Dominion. This is a distinction made so that out-of-state students who attend Virginia colleges cannot claim residency, and in-state tuition rates. Meanwhile, Kermgard’s husband, also a Navy vet, said he applied for in-state tuition at Northern Virginia Community College and was granted it immediately.

Kermgard appealed her out-of-state status three times within GMU and lost each time. Then she hired a lawyer, took her case to Fairfax County Circuit Court and won. Circuit Judge Robert J. Smith said Kermgard’s veteran status “changes everything. She left Virginia clearly because of military orders, and she has established domicile before.” He ordered GMU to classify Kermgard as an in-state student. Lawyers for GMU filed their notice of appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court, but withdrew it last week, Wynn said.

Both Kermgard and her lawyer, Amanda DeFede, were pleased that the case had ended but unhappy with how it unfolded.

“This experience has left me with great disappointment,” Kermgard said, “and a decision to end any further association with the campus upon the completion of my degree this month” and not support the school financially as an alumna. She said she enjoyed her classes and professors, but that the school’s Office of Military Services had failed to assist her in researching the tuition issue. “How can a school behave in such a manner when they claim to be veteran friendly?” Kermgard asked.

DeFede responded to Mason’s claim that they were dropping the appeal because of the new law by noting that Mason filed its notice of appeal days after both the Virginia House and Senate had unanimously approved the law. She said after two months Mason then filed the transcript of the case with the Supreme Court, and then waited until the last possible day before snail-mailing a notice of its withdrawal, extending the case for three months, which could have cost Kermgard thousands more in legal bills.

“Under the current law, Stephanie still should have received in-state tuition,” DeFede said. “The law may be changing to make it easier for all veterans after July 1, but GMU chose to make it difficult for Stephanie by their own interpretation of the statutes.”

Wynn declined to comment. Jennifer Connors, director of Mason’s Office of Military Services, said all domicile questions are referred to the registrar’s office.

The college does have a robust program to assist its 2,300 veterans, which Connors helped launch in 2009 when Mason had only 900 veterans. Connors said the post-9/11 G.I. bill has enabled many more vets to attend college with financial assistance, and Mason also provides up to $10,000 in tuition help for veterans enrolling as grad students.

Connors’s office works constantly with the Veterans Administration to make sure the federal funding for each student makes it to the right place at Mason, a huge bureaucratic task.  She has helped set up a veterans lounge in the Fairfax campus’s Johnson Center with, beside standard student toys (fridge, sofas, video games), a computer with access to the vets’ secure military accounts.

The office also offers a “Battle Buddies” program to provide mentors for new veteran students entering the academic world after years in a more strenuous environment. The office runs a Military Alliance Program which trains Mason faculty and staff in awareness and understanding of the issues faced by vets and active duty students, and also hosts lunches attended by local employers who may want to hire former soldiers down the line.

Mason also has a Veteran Scholarship Endowment and a Military Advisory Board of local executives. “The student veteran population is part of what makes the Mason community as unique and diverse as it is,” Connors said. “Therefore it’s our continued responsibility to help support these students who have specialized needs.”

Full disclosure: I teach a class at George Mason University as an adjunct instructor. 

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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Tom Jackman · May 4, 2013