(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 27, 2014 – Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as State Senators examined the budgets of thirteen agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills. Among key legislation approved on final consideration this week was a bill creating a statewide support structure that offers in-state tuition rates for veterans pursuing higher education in Tennessee.

The vote on the bill came the evening before testimony was given by Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder who said Tennessee was tied with Michigan in the last quarter of 2013 as having the fourth highest veteran unemployment rate in the country at 9.7%. Grinder, who appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee to present her department’s budget proposal, said the national average is 6.5%. Commissioner Grinder advocates increasing educational opportunities to help veterans return to the workplace.

“In accordance with the Drive to 55 initiative, it is imperative to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college degree,” said Grinder. “We believe those who sacrificed so much for our state and country, our Tennessee Veterans, must be included as a priority in that goal.” The Drive to 55 initiative aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications from 32% to 55% by the year 2025.

Approximately 27.7% of Tennessee’s Veterans have some college or an associate’s degree, while 24.3% percent have a bachelor’s degree. The department’s goal is to increase the number of Tennessee veterans with an associate’s degree to 37 percent and bachelor’s degree to 25 percent by 2016. This bill helps to meet that goal by providing veterans a clear, easy pathway to attend college in Tennessee.

Currently, recently-discharged veterans relocating to Tennessee must pay out-of-state tuition rates until residency is formally established. Under Senate Bill 1433, veterans enrolling within 24 months of discharge immediately receive the in-state tuition rate when starting college classes, eliminating the issue of residency for those relying on GI Bill benefits. To maintain in-state status and rates, veterans have one year to present proof of established residency, such as a driver’s license, motor vehicle registration or proof of employment. Registering to vote also fulfills the requirement.

The act also creates a “VETS Campus” designation to recognize and promote schools that make veteran enrollment a priority. Higher education institutions that satisfy veteran-friendly criteria, such as specialized orientation and the availability of mentoring programs, can receive the designation.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently in the process of creating an educational resource page to help Veterans quickly access educational resources and contacts at each of Tennessee’s colleges, universities and technical schools. In addition, Grinder said the department is working with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development to improve unemployment. This includes holding “Paychecks for Patriots” statewide job fairs which have connected thousands of Veterans with jobs. The department’s “Jobs for Veterans” page highlights upcoming job fairs, big job announcements and directs employers as well as job-seeking veterans to the new online Jobs 4 TN site, where specific information is listed to provide them with assistance.

In other action on veteran’s bills this week, the Senate Transportation Committee approved Senate Bill 2098 requiring the Department of Revenue to provide a free decal to disabled veterans that may be affixed to their vehicle’s license plate. Individuals with the decal attached to their license plate would be eligible for the same parking privileges as the holder of a disabled driver placard. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.