Friday, May 12, 2006

War Orphan Tuition Waivers

Why aren't all 50 states, or, better yet, the federal government, doing this for the children of those men and women in uniform who've made the ultimate sacrifice?
Just 5 years old, Brisa Dorff won't start kindergarten until this fall. But if she stays in Minnesota through college, her tuition should be covered.

Dorff's father, Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Dorff of Elk River, died two years ago when his helicopter crashed during a rescue mission in Iraq. A World War II-era law on Minnesota's books entitles children of fallen soldiers to free tuition at public universities.

"To me that's a godsend, just knowing that even part of my daughter's education is paid for," said Brisa's mother, Jamie. "It's already stressful enough having to worry about my 5-year-old now and having to worry 13 years down the road on top of that."

From New England to the mountain West, state leaders and university officials are reviewing decades-old "war orphan" policies and, in some cases, freshening them to ensure children who lose a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan aren't shut out.

A revised law covering the dependents of soldiers killed since the Sept. 11 attacks won approval in Iowa last week. The same debate is under way in Missouri. Wyoming, New Hampshire and South Dakota all recently updated their laws in different ways.

On Thursday, regents at the University of Minnesota will consider a resolution declaring the school's intention to provide the tuition waivers beginning with the fall semester. In the 2005-06 school year, such a waiver would have spared a student $7,140 in tuition.

Minnesota has had a war orphan law since 1943, but somewhere along the way the state's flagship school stopped honoring it.

"It was a policy that was never officially revoked. It just got forgotten," said university spokesman Dan Wolter.

State Rep. Lloyd Cybart, who alerted the school to the oversight, said the aid is vital.

"It's important for our troops to know their kids will be taken care of if something happens to them," said Cybart, an Air Force veteran. "What happens to your family weighs heavily on your mind."

Minnesota's law waives undergraduate tuition at public colleges and provides up to $750 a year for books, supplies and living expenses. About 40 current students now use the benefit, according to the state veterans agency.

The scope of benefits and eligibility requirements varies by state. Some states also cover tuition and fees for spouses, and others provide allowances to children of soldiers who are severely injured, listed as missing in action or were a prisoner of war. Federal education benefits also exist.

Iowa's revised policy grants post-Sept. 11 war orphans up to $5,500 a year for tuition, fees and books at public colleges and universities. The annual stipend is a big step up from the $600 allowed by a previous law.

Republican state Sen. Charles Larson, an Army reservist who served in Iraq himself, said as of now 16 children will be entitled to the aid once they reach college age.

Larson said it was important for him to pass the law "while this war is on the front burner for our country."

New Hampshire's updated law covers the current wars as well as unspecified future conflicts, providing eligible students up to $2,500 a year for four years. But Kathryn Dodge, executive director of the state's Postsecondary Education Commission, said her agency needs more money to support the good intentions. The program now operates on a slim $9,000 budget.

"Anticipating that there are more people coming down the line, our legislature needs to recognize we're going to need more money," Dodge said.

Military demographics suggest it's a benefit that many children won't tap for several years.

A 2004 Department of Defense report found that active duty members had nearly 1.2 million children, with 71 percent of them 11 years old or younger. The bulk of the 737,000 children of reservists were 14 or younger.

"This wave is just going to continue to build and build as those young people progress through school," said the American Legion's Bob Caudell, program coordinator for the American Legacy Scholarship Fund. The legion's scholarships have gone to children of soldiers killed in the line of duty since Sept. 11.

Becky Campbell, founder of the Children of Fallen Soldiers Relief Fund, said putting money away for college is difficult for military families dealing with the loss of an income-earning parent.

"It's a huge struggle for the families," she said. "There is no savings. They're running month to month and many months behind in paying their utilities. Their homes are being foreclosed."

Jamie Dorff has tried to sock away money here and there for Brisa's future, but is relieved that college costs will be one less worry.

"It's a burden that's lifted off of me," she said.
If there's one thing that our men and women in uniform should never have to worry about when they go to war, it's how to pay for their children's college education should they not return.
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