Florida Student Veterans to Battle for In-State Tuition

Marine Corps veteran Kelly Matisi is a University of South Florida student who got hit with Florida's soaring out-of-state tuition rates.

Marine Corps veteran Kelly Matisi is a University of South Florida student who got hit with Florida’s soaring out-of-state tuition rates.

From Gov. Rick Scott to local lawmakers, elected officials love to brag that Florida is “the most veteran friendly state” in the nation.

Many student veterans believe it’s time the politicians prove it and give out-of-state student veterans tuition waivers so they can pay significantly cheaper, in-state tuition rates while attending Florida universities, colleges and trade schools.

More than a dozen other states give all student veterans in-state tuition rates regardless of their state of origin.

“In Texas, all veterans get in-state tuition so I guess it was something I never really thought about,” said Kelly Matisi, a 9-year Marine Corps veteran who transferred to the University of South Florida with the goal of getting into the physical therapy doctoral program.

A veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Matisi was surprised to find that Florida did not offer student veterans in-state tuition rates. And it hit her pocketbook hard. Her tuition soared from $1,300 a semester to more than $8,500 when she transferred from a Texas university.

Matisi is not alone. A legislative analysis shows that more than 500 undergraduate and graduate student veterans paid out-of-state tuition rates totaling more than $8 million to Florida universities. Florida community colleges received more than $1 million from out-of-state student veterans.

Kelly Matisi, a 9-year veteran of the Marine Corps, in Iraq.

Kelly Matisi, a 9-year veteran of the Marine Corps, in Iraq.

“I work in the Office of Veteran Services. We’ve gotten calls from veterans asking that very question: ‘Do you guys give in-state tuition to veterans?’ And I have to tell them no.” Matisi said.

She said without the waiver it’s almost like Florida is turning its back on those who have served.

“We didn’t serve the State of Florida. We didn’t serve the State of Texas. We served the United States,” Matisi said. “So, we kind of feel like picking and choosing who gets a certain amount of tuition and who doesn’t based on where you enlisted, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

One thing the student veterans have going for them is their training. They come from a culture that never says quit. That’s the attitude Ray Mollison, president of the USF Student Veterans Association, adopted when the in-state tuition bill died in a senate committee last session.

“We do have a huge veteran population,” Mollison said last summer. “So, it’s going to bring a big voice next time when this bill does go up there again. And I think there’s going to be a lot more pull and a lot more active people trying to make this happen because the State of Florida has a lot of veterans.”

Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kelly Matisi (center) with her brother and mother.

Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kelly Matisi (center) with her brother and mother.

And student veterans’ “big voice” is already being heard. House Speaker Will Weatherford was already predicting passage of the tuition waiver for out-of-state student veterans.

“I think it’s important that we give our veterans the opportunity to go back to school to get the education that they need in the 21st century to make sure they can find employment. These are men and women who have served our country admirably across the country and across the world. And we owe that to them and I feel very confident that we’ll get a bill done like that this year,” Weatherford said in December.

But just in case, Matisia plans to join other student veterans for a trip to Tallahassee in February to lobby lawmakers for passage of (Senate Bill)SB 84 or the House version, (Proposed Committee Bill)PCB 14-01.

You can listen to the radio version of this story at WUSF News.

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