VT Guard Proposes Waived College Tuition



Vt. Guards stand at attention at Camp Johnson in Colchester, Vt.


MONTPELIER — State legislators are discussing a proposal that would provide free tuition to members of the Vermont National Guard. Supporters of the bill are hoping that the measure will increase enlistment and attract more working-age people to the state.

Vermont is one of few states in the country without full tuition benefits for their guard members. Currently, guard members can apply for interest-free loans and scholarships provided by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC). About 2 percent of guard members take advantage of this program, tapping into state funds of about $250,000. But many say that the fund is not enough, and are concerned that the limited assistance is pushing recruits to enroll in the National Guard of neighboring states over that of Vermont.

“You’re willing to serve, you want to serve, but if you’re looking at New Hampshire or Massachusetts or any of the surrounding states, you’re like, ‘I can stay in Vermont and maybe get some money, or I can just drive an hour south and be fully covered,” explained VT’s education services officer, Capt. Brian Williams, in an interview with the Burlington Free Press.

With a declining population, Vermont is already experiencing recruitment difficulties in its National Guard. In a testimony to the Vermont House of Representatives, Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, adjutant general described the challenges.

“In the last year alone, the Vermont Army National Guard under recruited by 50 soldiers and the Air National Guard under recruited by 60 airmen leaving 350+ vacancies across the ranks of the Vermont National Guard,” Cray said in the statement. The solution, he said, was to provide education as an incentive, a strategy used successfully by all other states in New England.

The newly proposed bill is designed to expand the current system, adding $640,000 to the budget, for a total of $890,000 in state funding to VSAC. Based on historical data from other states, officials with the national guard estimate that about 195 to 235 members would utilize the tuition benefits. In order to reap the benefits of this bill, officers would need to be accepted into University of Vermont’s (UVM) State Agricultural College, or another Vermont State College, and commit to serving two years. If members opt for a private institution, they only receive a reimbursement equivalent to UVM’s tuition.

The bill is popular. In Vermont, a state with one of the lowest birth- rates and highest outbound migration rates, measures to attract and keep the working population are viewed as important investments. Republican Governor
Phil Scott underscored
the issue in his annual State of the State address. “These are the men and women who bravely serve our country and communities,” he said. “They have valuable skills that benefit our employers and economy. They can help us grow our workforce, and put kids back in our schools.”

Democratic legislators including Representative Helen Head of South Burlington, chair of the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs, have also advocated for its passage.

“Given the committee’s receptivity to it this year, I suspect an even stronger bill will get our support,” she told the Burlington Free Press. Independent US Sen. Bernie Sanders has also thrown his support behind the measure.

Nevertheless, the bill’s passage is far from certain. Despite the enthusiasm from both sides of the aisle last year, the proposed bill failed due in large part to a lack of clarity on where the money would come from. Vermont continues to experience a tight budget and with Governor Scott’s aversion to new taxes, raising revenue to fund this measure is difficult. Until the new budget is ratified in the coming weeks, the status of the bill will remain unresolved.