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Sen. Burr and UNC chief back in-state tuition for vets

University of North Carolina President Thomas Ross said Thursday that extending in-state tuition to many student veterans would be a winning strategy for the state.

“It’s to our benefit because it allows us to keep them in North Carolina, and many of them end up staying and becoming part of the workforce,” Ross said in a meeting with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., in the Capitol. “There are no better employees.”

Ross said he hoped the state legislature would approve of Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal, announced earlier this week, to give in-state tuition to veterans who live in the state. The plan would apply to veterans who hadn’t lived in the state long enough to meet the one-year residency requirement for in-state tuition.

It would be limited to those who were within two years of leaving the service; had served at least four years, part of it in North Carolina; and were honorably discharged. Those students would receive a one-year scholarship of at least $7,500, intended to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities.

McCrory last month made a related proposal, asking the legislature to provide North Carolina-based veterans with in-state tuition at the state’s 58 community colleges for their first year out of the service. Burr said the governor’s bill was a good step but didn’t address all the different circumstances facing veterans.

Burr and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, introduced a bill in December that would provide in-state tuition to many student veterans using GI Bill benefits at public colleges and universities nationwide, regardless of their state of residence. The students would be required to enroll within three years of leaving active duty and live in the state while attending school.

“We’ve got about 800,000 veterans in North Carolina and growing at a rate faster than any state in the country,” Burr said.

With so many veterans in the state, “it shouldn’t be a shock” that younger veterans also choose it as where they want to live and go to school, he said.

About 8,000 student veterans are enrolled at one of UNC’s campuses, an increase from about 6,000 three years ago, according to university data. Other states have reached capacity in their university systems, and building new universities is expensive. But North Carolina has room for more students, Burr said.

“We want that talent in North Carolina,” the senator said. “It’s future talent that drives capital investment in this country today.”

Added Ross: “We owe (veterans) a great deal, and we want to provide them quality educational opportunities.”

Attracting veterans is also part of the university system’s plan for raising the educational level of the state’s population, he said.

“We’re in the middle of the pack right now,” Ross said of the state educational level. “If we want to be economically competitive five or 10 years from now, we need to be better.”

While the state should keep aiming to graduate more high school students who are prepared for college, Ross said the high school population is flat, so UNC needs to “find students who come to us in a different pathway.”

Ross was in the Capitol to testify Thursday at a House Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee hearing about student veterans. He told lawmakers in his written testimony that UNC was “working aggressively” with members of the General Assembly to enact state legislation in the upcoming short session that would allow many veterans to pay in-state tuition.

“North Carolina is a big military state,” Ross told the panel. “We are home to 800,000 veterans. Our state has six major military installations with the third-largest active military force in the country, comprising 120,000 personnel, 12,000 members of the National Guard, and their nearly 145,000 spouses and children.”

He also told lawmakers that faculty members say they like having veterans in their classes because “as a group, student veterans attend classes regularly, take their assignments seriously, are attentive and provide a unique perspective in class discussions.”