When Army Capt. Terry Crank was transferred to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., in 2001, his wife, Melissa, decided to get her elementary school teaching credential at nearby Christopher Newport University.
She filed for in-state tuition status after living in Virginia for a year, assuming she could cut her fees in half. Instead, she got an unpleasant surprise.
Despite her Virginia-registered car, her Virginia driver's license, her Virginia property tax bill and many other emblems of her residence status, the university said no. Because she was studying full time and raising two small children, she had no time to work and lacked the required $10,300 of taxable income. Her husband's income did not count because his official residence was in Texas, which does not have a state income tax.
"It is not our doing that we are living in Virginia," Melissa Crank said. That is where the Army sent them, but as happens with many military dependents, such rules make it difficult to ever feel totally at home.
In-state tuition rules in many states stymie military dependents who want to pursue their educations. For a long time, politicians and military leaders shrugged it off, but with the country depending on volunteer forces to win a war, they say it has become vital to keep morale high and persuade the most experienced troops to stay in the service. That has led the Army to launch a campaign for a better quality of life for dependents, including the nettlesome issue of tuition fees.
Educational opportunity is particularly important to the spouses and children of active-duty soldiers, said Patty Shinseki, wife of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff. More generous in-state tuition policies, she said, "will really level the playing field for those who would otherwise not be able to afford this."
For the state officials who manage university budgets, the effort on behalf of military dependents could not come at a worse time. Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, face budget deficits, and easing in-state tuition rules will only make the financial picture worse.
According to a September 2002 survey, military personnel based in the United States have 548,385 dependents who are spouses or college-age children. In Maryland there are 15,962 such dependents, the survey found, while in the District there are 9,402. Those numbers don't come close to Virginia's 80,487.
The large military presence makes for a political and social culture in Virginia that is very friendly toward people in uniform, but it also means any easing of the in-state tuition rules will be particularly hard on the state's budget. "The General Assembly has had several opportunities to change the rules, but the cost would be prohibitive, about $10 million," said Belle S. Wheelan, Virginia's secretary of education.
"We want to say yes, but we are constrained by state law and the limits of state funding," said Christopher Newport University President Paul. S. Trible Jr., a former U.S. senator.
Members of the military and their dependents say it's only fair that the state absorb this cost, given what they sacrifice for their communities. They say the rules are also inconsistent. In Crank's case, for example, Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton charged her the in-state rate for some courses.
Maryland has resolved many of the issues that frustrate military personnel stationed in Virginia. Several years ago, for instance, the University of Maryland changed its policy, and active-duty troops must show only that they have been stationed to live and work in the state and they will receive in-state tuition rates.
On Thursday, delegates passed an amendment that would extend the in-state tuition privileges to active-duty members and honorably discharged veterans and their families. The Senate passed a narrower provision. The amendments were tacked on to a highly charged bill to extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. The military measures, which some lawmakers decry as attempts to gut the immigrant bill, are scheduled for a final vote this weekend.
Since Shinseki became the Army's top general in 1999, he and his wife have made military family life a priority. Patty Shinseki said the couple remembers the difficulty of moving from Germany to Virginia in the middle of their daughter Loris's senior year of high school. They have tried to ease that pain for other families, sponsoring conferences and studies to improve communication and reduce the harm of moves that affect education. The campaign for better tuition rules is another stage in that effort, Army officials say.
Marian Bogen Ledford, whose husband, an Army major, is based at the Pentagon, temporarily moved back to her home state Mississippi to finish college because, she said, she could not afford Virginia's out-of-state tuition. But the University of Mississippi at first "would not give me in-state tuition because my husband is not assigned to a duty station [in that state]," she said.
Patsy Brumfield, associate director of media and public relations for the University of Mississippi, said what university officials in most states say: They are bound by rules set by the state legislature.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Hoffer, based at Fort Belvoir, said he could not even get in-state tuition at Northern Virginia Community College for his son, who recently graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County. Like many active-duty service personnel, Hoffer long ago established a permanent legal state of residence -- in his case, Pennsylvania.
Some states, however, do very well by dependents. Army Col. Fred Pickens said his two children had no trouble getting in-state tuition at Louisiana State University while he was stationed in Louisiana from 1995 to 2001. The state had clear rules offering the cheaper rate to the child of any active-duty personnel stationed there. "This was a superb policy for us," he said. "Otherwise we were faced with sending them to live with grandparents and go to college in Tennessee. . . . Paying the out-of-state tuition would have doubled our college expense."
Staff writer Brigid Schulte contributed to this report.