GREENVILLE, N.C. (WBTV) – Children of wartime veterans—including children whose parents have been killed or injured in combat—are scrambling to repay money and adjust budgets for the spring semester after the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs slashed a promised state-funded scholarship weeks before the semester’s end.
The North Carolina Scholarship for Wartime Veterans is automatically awarded to children of servicemembers killed in action or who die as a result of injuries sustained in combat as well as children of servicemembers injured during combat. The scholarship is also awarded to an additional 100 each of children of servicemembers who fought in combat and veterans who retire with a disability rating.
Under state law that authorizes the scholarship, students who attend an public university in North Carolina are entitled to full tuition and to have their fees covered. All but one group of students that receive the scholarship are also entitled to a room and board allowance each year.
In years past, the room and board allowance was $3,200. Schools credited the same amount to scholarship recipients’ accounts this semester, too. But a letter schools received from DMVA the week of Thanksgiving said that amount would be cut nearly in half and students would only receive $1,825 per semester.
As a result, students were told, they would have to repay the extra $1,375 that had already been credited to them for the semester on the promise that the DMVA scholarship would be paid by the end of the semester and the students would have nearly half the money they planned to have to live on for the spring semester.
‘And it’s finals season!’
Mikayla Luke is a junior at East Carolina University, where she is a pre-med major with a minor in music. She’s in the honors program and is a campus tour guide.
She went to ECU, in part, because her tuition would be covered by the DMVA scholarship she was awarded and the room and board allowance would help her pay bills and give her a chance to experience things—like a study abroad trip overseas this past summer—she wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.
The letter she got from ECU staff days before Thanksgiving was a shot
“It was like my whole life was kind of thrown into the balance now,” she said.
At first, Mikayla said ECU told her a hold had been placed on her account, which would have prevented her from registering for classes the next day.
She got that resolved and was able to register for classes on time. But now she’s trying to figure out how to pay back the nearly $1,400 ECU had already credited to her account.
“I have to think about rent, how am I going to pay that? Am I going to have to move my saving around for next semester?” Mikayla wondered in an interview with WBTV. “And it’s finals season! Today is the last day of classes. So, it’s throwing on extra stress on top of everything else that’s going on right now.”
Mikayla’s parents, Jim and Theresa Luke, are equally frustrated.
“It’s like, what to do, you know? We got to dig into retirement savings, are we going to have to dig into our emergency fund?” Jim Luke said. “You know, on top of everything else and the normal bills that come along. And the washer broke and you know, it’s just another thing piling on in the holiday season. Oh wow, Merry Christmas!”
Jim served in the Air Force and was deployed to the first Gulf War. He later served active duty in the Army National Guard.
“I just went into the military right out of high school, so I’m not college educated,” Jim said. “So, we just spent the last 20 years catching up on saving and retirement and trying to just not live in debt.”
“She may be able to graduate debt-free. Like, what an amazing gift!” Theresa Luke added. “Neither one of us have a college education, so these are first generation, so we are thrilled.”
Theresa was one of a half-dozen concerned parents who contacted WBTV after getting the news that their child’s scholarship still hadn’t been paid for this semester and, when it does get paid, would include a reduced room and board allowance.
“I started googling and searching and seeing what I could find out and I found your first piece that you did,” she said. “There’s nobody covering it other than you.”
Late Thursday afternoon, the UNC System said it had instructed its institutions--including ECU--to be flexible in handling the difference between the difference between what the DMVA scholarship was expected to pay and what will actually be paid this semester.
“UNC System institutions have been encouraged to provide flexibility and avoid penalizing these needy students while we work with the General Assembly to identify a long-term funding solution," UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey said in a statement.
"The children of war-time veterans should not be used as political pawns for budget negotiations.”
DMVA says it’s short on money but numbers say otherwise
North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Secretary Larry Hall refused repeated requests from WBTV for an on-camera interview for this story.
But in memos to universities and in emails from a spokeswoman, Hall’s department has repeatedly claimed the agency doesn’t have enough money to fully fund the scholarship and has cast blame on Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly for the scholarship not being paid.
Hall, a Democrat, was appointed by Governor Roy Cooper to lead the agency.
“The North Carolina Department of Military and Veteran Affairs (Department) will unfortunately be
required to reduce the funding amount for the North Carolina Scholarship for Children of War-Time
Veterans from FY 2018-19,” the letter sent by DMVA to universities in late November said.
“The Department received an additional one-time appropriation from the General Assembly in the amount of $2.4 million in FY 2018-19 and was therefore able to allocate a greater amount for room and board than in prior years,” the letter continued. “The Department requested the $2.4 million to be made recurring for this Fiscal Year and funding was included in Governor Cooper’s recommended budget. The funding was not included in any bill passed by the General Assembly.”
What is not included in DMVA’s letter is the fact that the agency has $9.1 million in recurring appropriations to pay for the scholarship.
Earlier in the semester, DMVA told universities and parents of scholarship recipients that it could not pay any of the scholarship because the legislature did not pass a budget.
But non-partisan staff at the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division said that was not true, since the continuing budget resolution carries forward the $9.1 million in recurring funds approved in last year’s budget.
Emails sent by Fiscal Research Division staff and obtained by WBTV show DMVA spent $4.2 million on scholarships in the first semester of last school year; less than half the money available to fund this year’s scholarship.
Additionally, data provided by a DMVA spokeswoman shows the number of scholarships being funded by DMVA is the lowest it has been in the past three years: 1,175 in the 2017-2018 school year; 1,231 in the 2018-2019 school year; and 1,172 in the 2019-2020 school year.
Despite the DMVA data that shows a drop in students actively receiving the scholarship for this school year, the letter sent to universities late last month says the room and board allowance had to be slashed because of a growing number of scholarship recipients.
“The $2.4 million in FY 2018-2019 was critical funding that allowed the Department to keep pace with increased scholarship demand and increased costs of college attendance. The Department awarded 405 scholarships for the 2019-2020 academic year versus 342 in the 2016-2017 academic year,” the letter said.
Outside of Cooper’s proposed budget, unveiled in early 2019, and one slide in a PowerPoint presentation made to a joint appropriations committee in mid-March, a DMVA spokeswoman could not provide any information or evidence to show the agency had pressed lawmakers to provide the additional funding.
‘This is ridiculous’
While students like Mikayla Luke re-work their budgets to figure out how they will afford to live for the rest of the school year, they’re also still waiting on their tuition payments to be made.
Two parents of scholarship recipients at Appalachian State University have told WBTV their students still haven’t received tuition payments from the scholarship this semester.
As a result, both parents said, they have had to pay for their children’s room and board out of pocket. Uncertainty remains even as classes have finished.
In an October interview with WBTV, Hall, the DMVA secretary, said the scholarships would be paid by the end of the fall semester.
“I’m sure that we usually pay by the end of the first semester and so we’re going to pay based on the funds we have available,” Hall said at the time.
Thursday afternoon, after this story was first published, a spokeswoman for Hall sent an email saying full scholarship payments had been made for students at private universities, community colleges and all but four public universities.
She did not respond to a follow-up question from WBTV asking when those payments were made. The question noted that data provided by DMVA shows the scholarships remained unpaid through the week before Thanksgiving.
North Carolina State Senator Danny Britt (R-Robeson), continued his criticism of DMVA and its failure to pay the scholarships in an interview with WBTV this week.
“Absolutely unacceptable. The money is there; these scholarships need to be paid. The family members they paid the price. The children paid the price. The scholarships need to be honored,” Britt said.
Britt has requested DMVA produce records related to the scholarship fund and lack of payments to his office by next week.
“I would say that this is one of those issues that should never be made political. This is not one of those issues where you should point fingers and lay blame,” Britt said. “Whenever it is your responsibility to administer certain monies, you need to administer those monies. Don’t blame others for why you’re not doing your job.”
Jim and Theresa Luke echoed a similar sentiment.
“It’s just not fair that their partisan politics are really just holding our kids hostage, holding their education hostage and making them suffer,” Jim Luke said. “They don’t realize that there’s fallout, that there’s other people affected outside of the legislature buildings.”
Theresa Luke agreed.
“They’ve got to come together and work,” she said. “They’ve got to compromise on both sides. The effect that this game that they’re playing is effecting other people is not fair.”
Their daughter, Mikayla Luke, whose end-of-semester has been turned upside down by DMVA’s failure to pay the scholarship money she was promised, was more to the point.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “You’re messing with people’s lives in order to just prove a point and that doesn’t make any sense at all and it’s not fair to you or for us.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement by the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors and to include additional information provided by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, both of which were provided after this story was first published.