The University of North Carolina system has told Hayleigh Perez, a U.S. Army veteran, that she was not a North Carolina resident and does not qualify for in-state tuition after she and her husband were on active duty for the past several years.
Originally from Iowa, Perez, 26, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2005 and was stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C. before being deployed to Iraq in January 2007. After serving there for 15 months, she returned to the U.S. in March 2008 and was honorably discharged in Sept. 2009.
She and her husband, an active duty service member, bought a home in North Carolina and continued to pay property taxes for it while he was stationed in Texas.
When he was ordered back to North Carolina in April 2012, Perez applied to take classes at two University of North Carolina schools: Fayetteville State University (UNC's FSU) and the University of North Carolina Pembroke (UNCP).
She decided to take spring classes at UNCP because of the program offerings, though the school did not categorize her as an in-state resident for tuition purposes. Meanwhile, UNC's FSU did label Perez, who last paid income taxes to the state of Iowa during her military career, as a North Carolina resident.
"I thought it would be easy to reverse the decision and appeal it because the other school classfied me as in-state and I had several documents that showed ties to North Carolina," she said. Those documents included bills and her voting record since 2004.
From January to March, she has been appealing the University of North Carolina to allow her to fully utilize the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which only covers in-state tuition. The difference in tuition per semester is $4,603.50. It might be a small amount to some, but she said it represents the university's "hostile" treatment to veterans. Without help from the university, she has relied on the help of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, a national student veterans organization.
The university ultimately rejected her claim. Because she has been an at-home mom raising her two-year old daughter, she said her lack of income tax filings may have contributed to the university's decision to reject her claim as a state resident.
The university said in a statement that the law, North Carolina G.S. 116-143.1, "mandates specific criteria for determining whether a person may be considered a resident for tuition purposes."
"The actual determination of residency is a complex legal matter," the university said. "It is the student's responsibility to provide the documentation necessary to support his or her claims for in-state residency for tuition purposes by the applicable deadlines. Supporting documents should show evidence of the student's physical presence in North Carolina for the requisite amount of time and creation of his or her domicile in North Carolina."
The university said Perez "was given the opportunity to appeal the residency determination at the institutional level and to the State Residency Committee. The State Residency Committee upheld the institution's judgment that Ms. Perez was a non-resident."
Perez counters that she and her husband have been service members for a majority of the last seven years and have called North Carolina their home while stationed elsewhere.
"I'm an American and I served our great country," she said. "My husband continues to serve and I don't have a state of residency if North Carolina is not considering me a resident."
Jason Thigpen, founder and president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, assisted Perez in her long process. He said the UNC school system has made progress in providing resources for veterans, but has a lot of work to do.
Thigpen, a student at UNC Wilmington, Army veteran and member of the National Guard, said his organization has helped 32 veterans successfully appeal their residency status with the UNC system. And while he said Perez had sufficient documentation, the university denied her the right to have representation in her appeal.
Kyle Carter, Chancellor of UNCP, wrote a statement on Tuesday about veterans and Perez.
"We pride ourselves on being a military-friendly institution, a designation we have earned for the past six years. Currently we serve more than 800 military personnel annually," Carter wrote. "We strive to provide services tailored to their needs, as illustrated by our Veteran Education and Transition Assistance Office, and, as part of our strategic plan, we are expanding our services by creating the Office of Military and Veterans Services."
Perez's description of her experience at the university differs with Carter's account. She said there were few resources for veterans to transition into civilian student life.
Thigpen also said he hoped the university would admit "they are not doing enough."
About the resources that the university touts, Thigpen said, "Just because you have an office and one tiny little space, it's not much of a resource."
Perez has applied to master's programs but is looking at private institutions, displeased, she says, with how UNC treats its veterans. She said she is no longer fighting for her in-state tuition, but wants to advocate on behalf of other students.
"I honestly think at this point, it's really a moot point as far as my specific case," she said. "Since I launched my petition, we've received emails from veteran students across the country that are running into the same roadblocks."