UH seeks Hazlewood funding from legislature
After paying out nearly $10 million in tuition assistance for veterans last year, the UH System is seeking full coverage of Hazlewood Act revenues from the Texas Legislature. Without state coverage, it’s unclear how UH, as well as all Texas public higher education systems, will continue to pay for veterans’ tuition under the current Hazlewood model.
The Hazlewood Act is a Texas benefit that gives tuition exemption to veterans, their spouses and dependents for up to 150 credit hours at a certified public institution. But exemption costs aren’t absorbed in the state budget — they fall on the shoulders of the universities, which have shelled out nearly $200 million since the act took effect in Fall 2010.
In recent months, UH has been involved in talks surrounding Hazlewood. In January, Keith Harris, a former UH student, won his lawsuit against state agencies and individuals in the United States District Court for his right to Hazlewood benefits, despite having enlisted in the military when he wasn’t a Texas resident. Before Harris’s suit, Hazlewood only catered to veterans who were Texas residents when they enlisted.
When Harris won his lawsuit, Texas institutions faced new obstacles. Since any U.S. military veteran could potentially get a free education in Texas, regardless of where they enlisted, there would be seemingly no limit to the amount of money UH and other public universities will have to shell out from here on out.
“The scary thing about the recent court decision is that we don’t know the cost that court decision will carry to our universities,” said Jason Smith, vice president for Governmental and Community Relations. “So not knowing is the scariest part about it… We think (the fiscal impact) could be astronomical. I really can’t compare anything else right now.”
Even before the court decision, university officials around the state have been alarmed at how much tuition revenue the act prevents them from keeping. Hazlewood benefits cost public university systems $173 million last year, and the Legislative Budget Board predicts that number will increase to $190 million in 2015. By 2017, public institutions are expected to pay $286.2 million annually.
But in July 2013, the legislature passed House Bill 1085, which allocated $30 million to public higher education institutions “for costs associated with the Hazlewood Legacy Program.”
The UH System received around $1.5 million after paying $9.8 million in reimbursements. The Texas A&M University System received almost $5.6 million after paying out roughly $22 million in Hazlewood reimbursements, and the University of Texas System received $7.8 million that same year in state Hazlewood monies. The amount that the UT- System paid out of pocket for Hazlewood is unavailable.
That same year, 1,453 students and dependents received Hazlewood benefits at UH’s campuses, with the exception of UH-Clear Lake. Numbers at UH-Clear Lake campus were not made available after several requests. In the UT-System, 6,415 students and dependents received funds.
Once the court’s decision takes effect, the current state of Hazlewood, designed to increase institutional access, might wind up preventing that for non-veterans. With Hazlewood requiring institutions to absorb tens of millions of dollars in benefits, the only feasible way to lessen damage to UH’s budget is a tuition increase, Smith said.
“There’s going to continue to be pressure on our administration to increase tuition to pay for it. The only two things we get in abundance as far as funding goes is funding from the state and tuition,” Smith said. “If the funding from the state is decided by the legislature, and the only thing that’s discretionary for us is tuition… We just don’t have any choice.”
Fiscally, Hazlewood isn’t the only legislative woe UH is dealing with. The University has been historically shorthanded when it comes to receiving state monies, and the state’s formula funding, which allocates 10 percent of formula funding to universities based on a three-year average of performance metrics, including graduation rates.
Given that UH caters to nontraditional students, who often have financial limitations that prevent them from graduating on time, the University receives disproportionately less funding than other major institutional systems.
In the 82nd legislative session, UH’s state funding was sliced to 22 percent from 55 percent.
The 84th legislative session started Jan. 13 and will conclude June 1.