Earlier this year, The American Legion identified as one of its legislative priorities the need to give veterans in-state tuition rates at all public universities and colleges, regardless of the veteran's state of residency.
Legionnaires in Indiana took up that cause, fighting for and earning passage of S.B. 177. The measure, which was signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Pence, grants in-state tuition eligibility for all honorably discharged veterans and active National Guard members who enroll in an Indiana state university within a year of living in the state.
The legislation was heavily advocated for by Indiana Department Commander Richard Jewell and other Legionnaires in the state, who fought for the bill's authoring then helped it move through both of the state's chambers.
"It says to these young patriots, we don't care where you were born, where you grew up or where you went to high school, if you want to come to Indiana to go to school, we welcome you and thank you for your service," Jewell said.
Currently, veterans serving in a different state or country may not qualify for in-state tuition upon returning home to Indiana. In some instances, this could increase the cost of their education by thousands of dollars.
S.B. 177 stands to remedy that by essentially waiving for veterans the one-year residency requirement that Indiana imposes on out-of-state students who wish to be eligible for in-state tuition rates. To qualify, a veteran must enroll in an Indiana university or college within 12 months of moving to the state. That veteran must then take steps to establish state residency within the same 12-month window.
"Financially, it just cancels out the GI Bill money any time you're paying twice as much as you should be (for college)," said Kevin Mezger, commander of University Post 360 located on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Mezger and other members of his post joined Jewell in helping usher the bill through the legislative process. As political wranglings increased the bill's price tag by millions, the group lobbied lawmakers to remove the pricey amendments from the law, leading to its passage by a near-majority.
"They essentially added several million dollars onto the bill, and we knew that wasn't going to fly – that wasn't go to pass the senate," Jewell said. "So we lobbied hard to get those amendments removed in the committee conference report."
Mezger and his fellow post members did their part by testifying in front of each chamber's education committee, providing a boots-on-the-ground perspective of how the legislation will benefit future student veterans. Members of University Post 360 could relate, as many of them are either student veterans themselves or recent college graduates.
"They provided us a younger face with direct testimony about how this bill could affect student veterans," Jewell said.. "It made a world of difference to have them sitting beside me in the senate chambers."
To Mezger, the law's passage represents a victory not just for current student veterans, but active servicemembers who plan to attend school in Indiana when they separate.
"We're doing something for the next generation," Mezger said. "It won't have a direct impact for me or anyone else there, but for all the people in today's military, it's going to have a huge impact."