Navy vet’s in-state tuition fight advances
The struggle to convince a state university that a student should pay in-state tuition is one that many with outside connections wage but few win in Virginia. But a George Mason University senior, who is a Navy veteran, won such a battle this month. The case is headed to the Virginia Supreme Court, where a victory could pave the way for former soldiers and sailors to pay a lower rate to attend college in the commonwealth, which is trying to position itself as military friendly.
Stephanie Kermgard, 29, moved to Charlottesville in 2004 to live with her mother. The next year, she enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in Norfolk, where she married another sailor in 2006. They had a child in Portsmouth before the Navy transferred them to Washington state in 2007. When their service was completed in 2011, they returned to Virginia, this time to Fairfax.
Virginia state education guidelines say military members retain their Virginia residency if they are transferred out of state by the military. At Northern Virginia Community College, John Kermgard, Stephanie Kermgard’s husband, was promptly granted instate tuition.
But George Mason said no to Stephanie, on first review and af- ter two appeals. She then hired a lawyer and took the case to Fairfax County Circuit Court, where Judge Robert J. Smith said Kermgard’s veteran status “changes everything. She left Virginia clearly because of military orders, and she has established domicile before.” He ordered GMU to classify Kermgard as an in-state student, which would require it to refund $20,000 or more, Kermgard said.
University counsel Thomas Moncure indicated to Kermgard’s attorney that he would appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, which could cost Kermgard thousands of dollars more. Moncure
declined to comment, and a university spokesman said the school does not discuss open legal cases.
At George Mason, there is a $9,000-per-semester difference in tuition for an in-state student compared with the out-of-state rate. With books and fees, Kermgard said, the actual difference was $10,000 for four classes and more than $11,000 for five.
Kermgard said she was told in the summer of 2011, when she enrolled, that she would have to wait a year to apply for in-state tuition. But the Virginia General Assembly, wanting to make the state more military friendly, passed a law earlier in 2011 waiving the one-year waiting period for veterans.
The battle has been dispiriting for the young family. “We’re not rich people,” Stephanie Kermgard said. “We’ve living off the G.I. Bill. We’re spending out-of-pocket money, our savings, Christmas money. Most of our tax refund is spent. We’ve exhausted everything.” She said the legal bill will come to about $10,000.
After Kermgard enlisted in the Navy, she became a quartermaster and navigator on an amphibious assault craft. She met her husband on that ship, in the Middle East, as they were coming under hostile fire near Aqaba, Jordan.
When John Kermgard was transferred to Everett, Wash., in 2007, Stephanie was also transferred as the spouse of an activeduty member. She began attending Everett Community College that fall, where she was considered an out-of-state student.
However, she did obtain a Washington state driver’s license, and in doing so, she checked off a box saying she wanted to register to vote there. Although she was required to get a local driver’s license and never voted in Washington, GMU seized on those actions as evidence that she had “abandoned” her Virginia domicile, although she continued to pay Virginia income taxes.
Stephanie’s tour in the Navy ended in 2009, and her husband’s in 2010, but John Kermgard stayed in Washington for an addi- tional year in the reserves. In 2011, as the couple made plans to return to Virginia, Stephanie began checking out colleges that might fit with her career goal of foreign service.
She decided on George Mason. The application asked why she was moving to Virginia. Kermgard wrote, “To attend George Mason University.” Further evidence, according to GMU, that Kermgard was moving to the Old Dominion strictly for “educational purposes,” not for permanent residency and, therefore, not eligible for instate tuition.
Kermgard said she was merely trying to express enthusiasm for attending the Fairfax university. But George Mason took it as more proof that she was trying to avoid paying the school tens of thousands of dollars. She had waited until 2012 to seek in-state tuition, mistakenly believing that there was a one-year waiting period.
After being denied, she appealed internally. Denied. She then appealed to a third level. Denied. She got the final ruling in an e-mail while sitting in class. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she thought. “I didn’t go to my classes the rest of the day. I almost dropped out.”
John Kermgard said, “It’s like David versus Goliath, but David’s got midterms.”
The Kermgards hired Amanda DeFede, a Fairfax lawyer who pointed out that a Virginia college is supposed to consider all factors, not just a selected few, in deciding whether someone is an in-state student. She said GMU’s decision was “inherently arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.”
Moncure argued in court that based on Kermgard’s explanation on her application about why she was moving to Virginia, “this court could find in favor of the university based on this one state- ment alone.”
Moncure also pointed to three Virginia Supreme Court cases, two involving GMU, all ruling in favor of denying in-state tuition. But in each of the cases, the students’ evidence of Virginia residency was much flimsier than Kermgard’s, who lived in the commonwealth for three years and only left on military order.
Virginia has tried to establish itself as being military friendly — in employment and education. Specifying in state guidelines that being transferred out of Virginia does not negate one’s residency and then in 2011 amending the law to allow veterans to get in-state tuition immediately were big steps in that direction. A Supreme Court victory for Kermgard would take that further.
The Kermgards simply wanted to return to Virginia. In court, Moncure pointed out that Stephanie Kermgard had written, “Moving back home to Virginia allowed me to pursue a degree that fits my interests.”
Judge Smith said, “I notice you say, ‘I moved back home’ . . . The word ‘ home’ is in there.” Then he ruled for the student — subject to Supreme Court review.