The horrible slaying of Sarajane Hakopian in central Virginia has, one year later, further victimized her teenaged daughter Molly. Because Molly no longer has a parent living in Virginia, state law required George Mason University in Fairfax to deny Molly in-state tuition, at a cost of at least $18,000 per year.
Molly, 17, has lived in Virginia continuously since 2002. After her mother’s death, her retired grandparents moved from the Los Angeles area to Hanover County in March 2012 to allow her to finish high school in Ashland. But her father, long divorced from Molly’s mother, lives in Montgomery County, Md., where he is a high school literature teacher and soccer coach. He provides the financial support for his parents, Molly and his teenage son in Virginia. And Virginia law declares that the parent providing the financial support is the “domicile” of the child. For Molly Hakopian, that is Maryland.
“Mere physical presence,” the Virginia law on in-state tuition states, ”shall not confer domiciliary status.”
LaMan Dantzler, an associate registrar for certification at Mason, said, ”It’s not at the university’s discretion to apply the law. The law establishes the requirements and the institution is responsible for following that law.”
Molly Hakopian has maintained a good sense of humor about the whole thing, in part because she has been accepted by three other schools, though none in Virginia. “If I am not a resident of Virginia,” she said in an e-mail, “then what state do I ‘reside’ in? My philosophy class would have a field day with that one. :-)”
Molly’s father, Haroot Hakopian, said the situation is frustrating, not to mention tragically sad and costly, because two other non-Virginia schools have ruled Molly an “independent student” for purposes of financial aid, and the third is reviewing Molly’s case because of its special circumstances. Molly is a “dependent student” under Virginia law, and her father has become her sole source of support since her mother’s death.
Mason officials declined to discuss the specifics of Molly’s case, citing privacy laws, but they urged the family to consider an internal appeal. Dantzler said about 1,500 applicants appeal their denial of in-state eligibility every year, and about half win.
“We just don’t have that much time and effort to put into that,” Hakopian said.
Hakopian’s situation came to light after he posted an online comment on a State of NoVa story last week about Navy veteran Stephanie Kermgard. Kermgard, a Charlottesville resident who enlisted in the Navy, was transferred with her husband to Washington state by the Navy, then returned to Virginia when her husband’s tour was over. Mason rejected Kermgard for in-state tuition, but a Fairfax County judge overruled the college. The college has since filed its notice of intent to appeal Kermgard’s case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Haroot and Sarajane Hakopian remained friendly after their divorce, and Haroot Hakopian helped support his ex-wife and two children with his salary as an AP literature teacher at Churchill High School in Potomac and coach of the varsity girls’ soccer team and various club teams. He is also president of the Maryland Association of Soccer Coaches and chair of the national soccer coaches’ High School Scholar All-America Committee.
Sarajane Hakopian was found slain on Jan. 30, 2012, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend who was caught driving her van in Florida. Haroot Hakopian wanted to move his children up to Maryland to live with him and his second wife. But after consulting with social workers, psychologists, counselors and educators, everyone advised him that it was better for Molly, then 16, and son P.J., then 14, to stay in Virginia at least for the rest of the 2012 school year.
Hakopian’s mother flew in from Glendale, Calif., in March 2012, initially just to help the teens through the 2012 school year. But she and her husband decided to move to Beaverdam not only through the end of the 2013 year for Molly, but for two more years for her brother, Hakopian said.
In the summer of 2012, Hanover County schools officials asked about the Hakopian children’s guardian status. They provided Haroot Hakopian with a six-page form in which he declared that his parents would be the temporary guardians of his children until they turned 18. The form was signed and notarized. Hanover County was satisfied.
There is a legal process by which a court must approve a legal guardianship over a minor. But Hakopian said he didn’t go through it because Molly would be turning 18 in May 2013, and Hanover County seemed fine with the forms he provided. “We thought everything was taken care of,” Hakopian said.
It might be expected that Molly Hakopian’s grades would suffer after enduring such tragedy. Instead, they rose, her father said. She took classes at a local community college and has a 4.3 weighted GPA. She has been accepted at Hofstra, Syracuse, Vermont and George Mason. George Mason offers an undergraduate the opportunity to pay $9,420 a year in tuition costs for in-state students, not including fees. Out-of-state students are charged $27,564, according to Mason’s Web site.
But Virginia residents must apply for in-state tuition. The eligibility for in-state tuition is defined by Virginia law, and further clarified by a set of guidelines from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
Molly would seem to be classified as a “dependent student,” defined as one “who receives substantial financial support from his spouse, parents or legal guardian.”
The law further states that a dependent student’s domicile shall be presumed “to be the domicile of the parent or legal guardian ...providing him substantial financial support.” And that parent or legal guardian must have lived in Virginia for a year prior to enrollment.
So the Hakopians submitted the Hanover County guardian form for Molly’s grandparents.
“This is not sufficient for the files we are required to keep, according to Virginia state law,” a Mason admissions coordinator wrote. “Please provide a court guardianship appointment document signed by a judge.”
They didn’t have that. So Hakopian was instructed to fill out a parent form. But he had never lived or paid taxes in Virginia. Molly’s mother had, but she is gone. Molly was classified as out-of-state, for tuition purposes.
Molly Hakopian said she was “confused. I have lived in and attended school in Virginia ever since the second grade. I have a Virginia license and will graduate from a Virginia high school this summer. It seems weird that Mason is questioning my residency...I have nothing against Mason, but the idea that they may deny someone else in-state tuition because of special circumstances is not a pleasant one.”
“Why aren’t they exercising the discretion where other colleges do?” Haroot Hakopian asked. “We’re not trying to cheat anybody out of money.”
Molly Hakopian said she will not appeal Mason’s ruling and not enroll.
“Mason is a great school and I am very happy to be admitted,” she said, ”but this makes me feel as if they don't really want me there. That may seem like an immature teenager response, but I have a few great schools to choose from and I will do well at whichever school I eventually attend.”
Dantzler said Mason wants “to qualify everyone who is eligible under the law” for in-state tuition. “We take great lengths to ensure that we are evaluating the information presented to us properly.”
(NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, I teach a class at George Mason University as an adjunct instructor.)