Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill granting all military veterans and their dependents in-state tuition at South Carolina's universities regardless of when they left the service.
McMaster's signature May 6 amends a 2015 law supported by then-S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley which granted in-state tuition to all former service members using education benefits from the GI Bill.
Veterans and their spouses don't have to currently live in South Carolina to apply for the in-state tuition rate but must move here after becoming enrolled.
The law from Haley's tenure, however, specified that a veteran must apply to South Carolina's schools within three years of leaving military service to be eligible for in-state tuition rates.
Under the bill signed by McMaster, that time limit no longer applies.
"South Carolina has a long and storied history of supporting the men and women who have sacrificed to serve in the Armed Forces, and Gov. McMaster is proud to have signed this bill into law that will build on that reputation and attract even more of these brave Americans to our great state," said Brian Symmes, a spokesman for the governor.
The GI Bill covers the cost of in-state tuition but doesn’t cover the difference in out-of-state fees and tuition. Haley's law helped incentivise former service members to consider South Carolina for their education.
It can lead to huge savings for veterans. At the University of South Carolina in Columbia, for example, the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is nearly $10,000.
With the time limit requirement waived, advocates such as Gen. William Grimsley, McMaster's secretary of Veterans' Affairs, believe a larger group of veterans nationwide could relocate to South Carolina as a result.
"This is an awesome way to keep transitioning veterans to South Carolina," Grimsley said. "And there's a strong chance that if you go to school here then you'll want to stay here, too."
But there is also a potential concern about how this could impact funding for state schools.
The bill says allowing in-state tuition for veterans "may have a negative impact on other funds revenue" for South Carolina's public colleges.
For technical schools in the state, which mainly draw from local residents, the impact would be "minimal," according to the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education.
South Carolina's Commission on Higher Education surveyed public schools in the state to see what the impact would be but "has received no response," according to the most recent version of the bill.
The bill would be updated with the findings if or when the commission responds.
David Brunori, a professor at George Washington University and a senior director at the consulting firm RSM US, specializes in state and local taxation. He said the bill is a good benefit for veterans and mirrors initiatives by many other states to try and get former servicemembers to relocate in an effort to bolster their economies.
But funding should always be a concern, he said.
"Any time you do something for veterans it resonates well politically," he said. "South Carolina gets a lot of out-of-state students now. But, typically, the out-of-state tuition subsidizes the cost of the in-state-tuition ... So, you lose some of that."
State Sen. Tom Young Jr., R-Aiken, sponsored the 2015 and 2021 versions of the bill that were signed into law.
Young said he was excited to see this version pass and is glad the improvements will help even more veterans.
"It's a win for veterans and their dependents," he said. "It ensures that veterans and their dependents have the same educational opportunities in South Carolina as they would have in other states, and it will help South Carolina attract more veterans to our state."
South Carolina already boasts a large veteran population, according to a 2017 economic study.
There are 56,969 military retirees among the state’s 417,515 veterans. South Carolina has the 10th highest total Department of Defense personnel and the ninth highest military retiree population in the country.
McMaster has made supporting these veterans one of his main priorities in 2021 and has also advocated for the Statehouse to eliminate all state income taxes for military retirees.