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Student Veterans Plan To Sue UNC For Discrimination

The U.S. Army

A group of veterans attending state-run universities in North Carolina plan to file a discrimination lawsuit against the UNC system this week alleging they are routinely - and wrongly - made to pay out-of-state tuition.

The military life is a transient one - training in one state, based in another, transferring every few of years. That's one reason the federal government doesn't require service members to change their driver license every time they move. So establishing residency for things like in-state tuition is tough, says Army veteran Andrew Sammons.

"You're kind of just more a citizen of America than a resident of any one particular state," says Sammons.

Last year, Sammons was finishing his military service in Virginia and planning to apply to UNC-Wilmington this fall. His wife is from the area. They got a house in Wilmington and Sammons commuted back from his post on weekends. He got a North Carolina driver license and started having the Army withhold North Carolina income taxes.

But that wasn't enough for UNC, which requires students to show evidence they're permanently domiciled in North Carolina - and not just setting up residence to get cheaper tuition. It took Sammons three appeals and the help of a nonprofit called the Student Veterans Advocacy Group to finally get in-state status.

The group's founder is another veteran at UNCW - Jason Thigpen.

"It's about money," says Student Veterans Advocacy Group founder Jason Thigpen, who's also a veteran attending UNC-W.

Thigpen says he's helped 32 veterans like Sammons successfully appeal their residency status and he's convinced UNC schools are systematically classifying veterans as out-of-state students so they can collect higher tuition.

Until August of last year, this wasn't a problem for veterans because the GI bill paid full tuition at public institutions, no matter the rate. In fact, Thigpen says many veterans had no idea if their school was classifying them as in-state or out-of-state.

But now only in-state rates are covered and veterans have to make up the difference - anywhere from $6,000 to $11,000 in North Carolina. 

"We do believe there's a potential serious issue that the state is really just by default doing this," says Thigpen.

"This not a situation where the UNC system is targeting any group of students," says Kimrey Rheinhardt, vice president for federal relations at the University of North Carolina System.

Rheinhardt says UNC knows veterans struggle to qualify for in-state tuition, but residency requirements are set by state lawmakers and can't be bent. Plus, she says the cost of educating a student paying in-state tuition is subsidized by the state, so making it easier for veterans to qualify as in-state students could hamper the system's budget.

"We would love nothing more than for the state to subsidize these students," says Rheinhardt. "But we would also like to continue to enjoy the very generous funding that the general assembly has always provided to the university."

State lawmakers have thus far resisted efforts to give UNC more flexibility in granting in-state status to veterans.

The Student Veterans Advocacy Group plans to force the issue by filing a lawsuit this week alleging UNC schools are in the habit of being more flexible with other students than with veterans seeking in-state status.