Guard veterans to receive free tuition

Gov. Kulongoski and Oregon University System announced a plan yesterday to waive tuition for Oregon National Guard members deployed to combat zones since Sept. 11, 2001.

Starting fall term 2005, all seven public Oregon universities will waive tuition and fees for Oregon National Guard members pursuing a four-year undergraduate degree. The tuition waivers start where federal and state-specific National Guard benefits end, so the Montgomery G.I. Bill’s credit of up to $4,500 per student would be used before the state program.

In a climate where state services face cuts, finding money to show support for returning troops is very popular with lawmakers. The plan is one of many state efforts to send returning service people what Kulongoski and legislators call a message of gratitude. Kulongoski has proposed a package of $700,000 worth of benefits, including $250,000 allotted for life insurance policies.

Other proposals circulating in Salem include perks such as free hunting and fishing licenses and a variety tax credits. Based on current enrollment of Oregon National Guard members, OUS estimates that the universities would absorb about $320,000 worth of tuition and fees for the 2005-06 school year for 620 students, said Dave McDonald, director of enrollment and student services for OUS.

PSU will likely rank in the top three for enrollment of students taking advantage of the offer, McDonald said.

Of the over 55,000 National Guard members serving in Iraq, more than 1,300 are from the Oregon National Guard.

Besides thanking the service people, the benefits serve to keep current and recruit new Guard members. And with widespread support for giving Oregon’s troops creative benefits, the debate in Salem centers not around whether the state should spend money on troops, but how much.

Kulongoski, a Marine who used the G.I. Bill to pay for college, said educational benefits are a big draw to military service. Besides the governor’s $700,000 package, legislators have pushed for more extensive plans, including a Republican representative’s suggestion of up to $4 million.

Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem, said the push to support troops crosses party lines.

University administrators have been very receptive of the fee remission program, McDonald said, adding that the proposal moved through the approval process very quickly.

"This is an effort to do more as a state to support our members of the National Guard, the people who are actively serving on our behalf," McDonald said. "It’s very much the right thing to do."

There is no deadline for post-Sept. 11 veterans to take advantage of the offer, McDonald said. "We don’t view their commitment as a one time thing, and our offer isn’t a one-time thing," he said. "We wanted education to be one of their opportunities."