State Stops Paying for Veteran Tuition Program


By Stephanie Tyrpak
By Randy Livingston

HARRISBURG -- Going back to school is a big step for military members returning from service. In Illinois, a state program gives veterans that opportunity free of charge. The only problem is the state has stopped paying its share.

The Illinois Veteran Grant was created back in the 1960s. It costs the state about $32 million a year.
However, the current financial problems in Illinois means the funding has dried up. That's left schools legally required to continue the grant without any reimbursement from the state.
When veterans decide to trade the military for an education in their home state, John Okerson at Southeastern Illinois College is there to lend a hand.
"We try to help them reintegrate and make that transition as smooth as possible," said Okerson. 
The Pope County native spent 20 years in the Army. He then enrolled at SIC. He's studying nursing and working in the financial aid office.
"I let them know what benefits they can use," said Okerson. "Let them know what they need to bring in, so I can process it."
The Illinois Veteran Grant was created to give military members free tuition and fees. It's a promise the state has been breaking -- while schools pick up the bill.
"A lot of veterans join the military based off that," said Okerson. "Left Illinois, and they come back expecting that benefit."
Funding for the program had been dropping. In the 2012-2013 academic year, the money came to a halt. 
Last year, more than 360 veterans used the benefit at John A. Logan College. It cost the school a total of $341,000. 
Rend Lake College paid out more than $100,000 for 55 students.
SIC was left to absorb the cost of about 40 people.
"We usually waive about $115,000-$120,000 dollars a year," said Director of Financial Aid Emily Henson. 
While the lack of payment frustrates Henson, helping local veterans get a degree remains a top priority.
"We like to see them use their benefits to graduate and go onto the workforce," said Henson. 
Work on the 2015 budget isn't providing much hope for colleges and universities. They're already dealing with cuts on all sides. Lawmakers would have to set aside money for the grant. So far, that hasn't happened.
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