Navy vet’s in-state tuition fight ad­vances

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY TOM JACK­MAN

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.

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