Spouses and children of military personnel stationed in Virginia would pay reduced-rate college tuition -- with the discount being made up by increased fees to other students -- under a proposal being considered by the state Council of Higher Education.

The proposal would allow military families to pay the lower in-state tuition rates even if they maintain residency in their home states and do not pay Virginia taxes. The savings would be significant: At George Mason University, state tuition is $1,824 a year and out-of-state tuition is $3,648. At Northern Virginia Community College, state residents pay $16.93 per credit hour; out-of-state residents pay $83.

The $3 million estimated cost of the military discount would be borne by other students in the form of higher tuition under a proposal by state council staff. That would translate to an average of $9.32 per student at four-year schools and $31.68 at the community colleges, according to a state council projection.

Supporters say the reduced rate would cost relatively little and would underscore the importance of the military to the state economy and national defense. But skeptics argue that it could be unfair to charge other students higher fees in order to give a break to military families.

Virginia is the nation's third-ranked state in military personnel, with more than 98,000 on active duty, according to the Pentagon's latest figures. Active-duty military personnel may declare residency in their home states, which exempts them from Virginia's income tax -- a special boon to those from states such as Florida, Texas and New Hampshire that have no state income tax. Only 7 percent of the military personnel in Virginia are state residents, according to state figures.

Virginia is in the minority of states that do not give tuition breaks to military spouses and dependents. Thirty-nine states, including Maryland, charge lower rates to military families, according to a council report.

Council members voted down the reduced-tuition proposal Dec. 8, but then decided to vote again Jan. 6 after asking for additional information on the military's impact on the economy and on the income of military families. The council also asked for more information on a California policy that grants reduced tuition for only a year; California has the nation's largest number of military personnel.

"It certainly would be a worthy thing if it could be paid for in an equitable manner," said council member William Spong. If colleges simply add the cost to tuition for other students, he said, "I'm not sure I think that is equitable. It might well be the state can appropriate the money out of general funds."

The council vote would be a recommendation to the legislature and to Gov. Gerald L. Baliles. Education Secretary Donald J. Finley said yesterday that neither he nor Baliles would comment on the issue before the governor releases his proposed two-year budget on Jan. 13.

Council staff members estimate that nearly 1,200 spouses and dependents would take advantage of the lower tuition. George Mason University officials estimate that up to 350 full-time students would do so at their Fairfax campus.