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VMSDEP explained: What it is and why the General Assembly is meeting

Members of the Board meet
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
The Preserving VMSDEP Task Force meets on Monday, June 10, 2024 at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond.

The 94-year-old program is at the core of a budget hurdle. But what does it do?

The state budget approved by Virginia lawmakers in May included some controversial revisions and programmatic cuts to the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program — which have sparked an outcry from the community, particularly from veteran families.

That’s in part because when the budget passed out of the May 13 special session, it included a near-impossible May 15 deadline for VMSDEP-eligible families to be exempted from those changes.

Now, the General Assembly is set to reassess those changes days ahead of the new fiscal year.

VPM News is taking a step back to explain what VMSDEP is, what’s been going on with the program and those impacted, and what’s next.

What exactly does this program provide and to whom?

The VMSDEP (pronounced “VEMS-DEP” or “V-MES-DEP”) program has been around since 1930. It was originally created to provide college tuition to the kids of active-duty service members killed in action — or “totally or permanently disabled” — due to service in World War I (1914–18).

Today, it requires colleges to waive up to eight semesters of tuition (four full academic years) for everyone deemed eligible. And it’s no longer only just the children of those disabled or killed in action who qualify now, because there’ve been various expansions over the years.

Spouses were added to the program in 2006 — and stepchildren of those KIA were added in 2022. Another big change in 2019 expanded eligibility to dependents (the spouse and/or children, in this case) of veterans killed or disabled due to any service-related injury, meaning it didn’t have to be a conflict-related injury or death.

What have General Assembly lawmakers changed about the program in 2024?

Arguably the largest change requires federal military education benefits and other state-level financial aid — which includes Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits — to be applied before VMSDEP kicks in.

That’s both a big departure from how the program has historically operated for the last 94 years and a new burden for military families. In the past, families didn’t have to apply for federal financial aid to qualify for VMSDEP. Family income levels and other types of financial aid weren’t factored in to decisions about tuition waiver awards.

Under the new changes, families would have to submit a FAFSA application and also potentially be on the hook for a portion of tuition costs before a VMSDEP waiver kicks in — depending on the family’s income level.

The General Assembly left the exact dollar amounts families would be responsible for up to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and it hasn’t been fully fleshed out according to Lee Andes, SCHEV’s interim director of finance policy.

SCHEV was also directed to determine what portion of any VMSDEP-eligible student’s federal Pell Grant award would have to be applied toward tuition.

But Andes said some of what made it into the budget wasn’t what SCHEV intended. He said families aren’t supposed to have to exhaust their GI Bill benefits before receiving VMSDEP aid.

“It was not intended to be prescriptive on which one they used,” Andes said. “But if you're using federal [GI Bill] benefits, the idea was to use the full benefit first before applying a tuition waiver.”

Andes added his personal recommendation would be for families to use all VMSDEP funds before accessing GI Bill benefits.

What would these changes mean for military families?

Regardless of intent, military family members in Virginia like Kayla Owen, the spouse of a disabled veteran, say the language as written will have unintended financial consequences for families like hers if it’s not reversed. She started the group Friends of VMSDEP to advocate for the language reversal.

“There's this cycle of continued harm to a population that is already vulnerable,” Owen said. “And the tone deafness of many of the legislators simply thinking, ‘This is not a big deal’ — when people are having to tell their kids, ‘Hey, you may not be able to go to school in the fall.’ Like, we don't know what we're gonna do. We don't have $12,000 lying around for this.”

A lot of the frustration came down to the timing of Virginia’s budget itself. The contested language passed on May 13 included a May 15 — two days later — college enrollment cutoff date. So VMSDEP-eligible families had two days to commit to a school for fall 2024, provided they’d already been accepted. If they were, they would be exempted from the changes for the 2024-25 academic year. But after that, new program changes would take effect for all students going forward.

The May 15 date was also problematic for those who hadn’t decided where they’re going to school by then. Within the commonwealth and nationally, some colleges have extended their fall enrollment deadlines beyond May 15 because of ongoing issues with the federal financial aid form.

And that doesn’t take other possible hurdles into consideration.

“What if you're on a waitlist? What if you were going to a community college for which there's no formal commitment process?” Owen said. “I mean, there's any number of scenarios that we're not taking into account.”

Other controversial budget changes involved limiting program eligibility to certificate programs, associate’s degree or undergraduate degrees — not higher-level programs. And if the person seeking VMSDEP funding already has a four-year degree, they couldn’t use the tuition waiver for another in the event of a new career or change in personal circumstances.

“I'd be very curious, projection-wise, how many spouses do they believe would actually be able to use this [benefit] based on the new language?” Owen asked.

The General Assembly’s changes also “could have created an overall reduction in some of the aid they could’ve received,” said Brad Barnett, the director of financial aid at James Madison University.

That’s because before this, students could receive additional aid — like the full federal Pell Grant — on top of a VMSDEP tuition waiver. Pell Grants can be used to help pay for things like housing, books and transportation. The changes would jeopardize students’ access to all of that Pell money and VMSDEP.

Why were these changes proposed in the first place?

Frankly, cost. Higher education institutions in Virginia see this as an unfunded mandate. According to officials, until the recently-approved budget invested $40 million in the program, the waiver program hadn’t received any state investments. The commonwealth has previously funded a related stipend, not the tuition waivers themselves. (The approved budget also earmarks $19.4 million for those stipends across the next two fiscal years.)

The program has also grown considerably in just the last five years. In fall 2022, over 6,000 students were enrolled in VMSDEP statewide — compared to about 2,000 in fall 2019.

“This program has exponentially grown over the past several years, to the point where it's gotten very expensive,” JMU’s Barnett told VPM News. “And there's just the concern about the long-term financial sustainability of it.”

Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao said in a statement that VMSDEP “remains as an unfunded mandate experiencing unanticipated expansion, which means that the cost falls to all other students who pay tuition, and, at VCU, this includes a majority who have high financial need. As an institution committed to accessibility, we prioritize affordability by trying to keep tuition increases to a minimum.”

What’s led to the big uptick in VMSDEP enrollment?

Experts like SCHEV’s Lee Andes say there are a few factors at play. One is the expanded eligibility through the 2019 legislation (to dependents of veterans killed or disabled from any service-related injury). But also, he said there are just more students applying to college now who are VMSDEP-eligible.

“We are now in that roughly 20-year period since 9/11,” Andes said. “The veterans who served — especially when it started — if they had children soon after they left service, those are the children we're seeing now.”

There’s also been more of a concerted effort to increase the program’s visibility. That’s detailed in annual reports from the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, the state agency that administers VMSDEP. (DVS is also the state-level overseer of the federal GI Bill benefits, which is under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.)

Stephen Ross, a veteran and director of VCU’s Military Student Services, said he’s advertised the program extensively — which has contributed to its growth in Richmond.

“The biggest reason this program grew is because we promoted it very hard,” Ross said. “You know, I take my job very seriously. We were hired at VCU to support the military families and the student veterans.”

What are Virginia state lawmakers and officials planning to do now?

The state Senate will meet Tuesday, June 18 to take up this issue – and the House of Delegates will be back to discuss VMSDEP Friday, June 28.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell told VPM News that Senate Democrats plan to reverse at least some of the program’s new restrictions — ensuring that all students enrolling in college this fall aren’t impacted by the changes. Meanwhile, lawmakers in both chambers have introduced language to repeal all of the recent changes.

There is a fair bit of time-sensitivity involved on the state’s part: Virginia’s fiscal year ends June 30, and the upcoming budget the General Assembly passed in May is where the VMSDEP changes were made. If a repeal of those changes does pass both chambers, it would involve tinkering with the commonwealth’s two-year budget days before it’s set to begin on July 1.

Surovell also said lawmakers plan to order a study of the program by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the statehouse’s oversight agency, to be completed before the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2025. Meanwhile, SCHEV is waiting until after lawmakers meet to release any guidance to Virginia colleges and VMSDEP families.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin's task force on VMSDEP is expected to meet again in July and August to discuss the program. Those agendas and dates have not yet been set.

Editor’s note: VCUarts and the Virginia War Memorial Foundation are VPM sponsors.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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