WSAZ Investigates | Guardsmen In Debt
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The West Virginia National Guard announced this week it would give service members more money to cover college tuition, but that announcement did not happen without a frustrated father and a WSAZ investigation.
That father is Scott Lowe, a retired lieutenant colonel of Charleston’s 130th Airlift Wing. His son, Braden, now follows in his father’s footsteps as a loadmaster with the West Virginia Air National Guard.
Scott Lowe served his country and state for 27 years flying C-130s.
Now, the retired airman is speaking out about a tuition program he says leaves guardsmen like his son in debt. His advocacy started with one conversation.
“I said, ‘Son, is the Guard’s educational program taking care of you with tuition,’” Lowe recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, no, Dad. They only give us $3,500 a semester.’”
But Marshall University’s tuition is $4,300 a semester. That leaves a balance of more than $1,500 for the full school year.
“How did that hit you?,” asked WSAZ Investigative/Political Reporter Curtis Johnson.
“The bottom line is, he’s willing to put his butt on the line for you, for me, for the citizens of the state of West Virginia, if they need him in times of state emergencies, and for the country,” he said. “So, to me, tuition should be, it should be a no-brainer. It should be a non-event.”
Lowe’s concern lies with the West Virginia National Guard’s Tuition Assistance Program.
Back in 1977, the West Virginia Legislature passed a law that started the program. The law states in part, ”Any member of the Army National Guard or Air National Guard ... may be entitled to payment of tuition and fees for that program during the period of his or her service.”
But, for years, those payments have been capped at $7,000 a year -- an amount WSAZ found is far less than tuition costs at universities across West Virginia.
In fact, WSAZ found the $7,000 cap is has not met the average tuition for state universities for the last seven years.
Since the cap amount is set by the state’s adjutant general, Johnson went to National Guard headquarters to find out why it hasn’t been raised to pay the full cost.
“Why hasn’t that been addressed earlier?” Johnson asked.
“There wasn’t a need until One October because we had two separate programs,” replied Adjutant General Bill Crane. “The promise is up to $7,000. That cap has been in place for well before me, and so the promise was up to 100 percent.”
Until this month, Crane said his office could use federal tuition assistance to offset any balance that exceeded the cap. That changed with new restrictions handed down by the Air Force.
Crane says he recognized with less access to federal funding, the cap may need to be adjusted, but with $4 million allotted for the program, he has been been cautious.
“I don’t know what the next year’s tuition increase is going to be,” Crane said. “That’s up to the colleges to decide. So if I would ever say, ‘We’re going to give you 100 percent,’ that would be a broken promise and I don’t want to break a promise.”
WSAZ first reached out to the National Guard about the issue on Sept. 30. Johnson sat down with Crane for an interview the following week.
After that, Crane held a meeting to look at the cap. That resulted in a decision to increase the cap from $7,000 to $9,000.
“With rising inflation, cost of living, and higher education expenses increasing, we knew it was something we had to get after,” Crane said Tuesday in a prepared release. “We wanted to ensure it was done right with the correct data to provide a clear picture of the need for our members, especially during such a tumultuous time for education during the pandemic and as the life began to return to a semblance of normalcy.”
The $2,000 increase will take care of Lowe’s son at Marshall University, but it still falls about $400 short of tuition at West Virginia University, which is set at $9,384 for the current school year.
Lowe praised the increase, but said the WVU example leads him to worry about the future.
“It sounds like some data was missed because they should have based it upon, at least, the highest state-funded school tuition cost,” he said. “I’m concerned that in one year we’ll be, not to the same extent, but we’ll be back in the same, back in this same corner where we’re not able to be up to 100 percent. So, if we’re going to say we’re going to go up to 100, we should be prepared to pay 100 percent. That’s as black and white as I can make that.”
Lowe called upon the National Guard to request more money from the Legislature, if needed, but WSAZ found the program has had money left over for the past five years.
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