College life got a little easier for military reservists in Wisconsin, thanks to a statutory amendment signed into law last month by Gov. Tony Evers.
Officially known as 2019 Wisconsin Act 75, the updates to state law offer stronger protections to National Guard and Reserve college students in Wisconsin called into active military service.
“This new law will give Wisconsin the strongest state protection in the 54 states and territories for short-term call-ups,” said Maj. Bartholomew Droessler, former education services officer for the Wisconsin National Guard. “This is the culmination of a two-year effort, which began after our statewide call-up for Hurricane Irma in the fall of 2017.”
The need for the law emerged in September 2017 when more than 2,500 Wisconsin National Guard members were called to state active duty to assist Florida with a hurricane response. This was a short-notice mission where the Guard was fulfilling its unique role as a first military responder in times of emergency.
Of those 2,500 Guard Soldiers, 398 were college students who had just started their fall semesters. Of those, 167 attended state universities, 108 attended state technical colleges, and 123 attended private colleges or apprenticeship programs.
In a real-time demonstration of how quickly the scope of domestic response efforts can change, officials in Florida quickly realized that the damage from Hurricane Irma was not as severe as forecasted. Accordingly, officials there asked the Wisconsin National Guard to limit its response to the 650 troops who had already arrived. The remaining Guard members who had disrupted their college schedules to help in a natural disaster response effort — and in some cases were already en route to Florida when they were ordered to return to Wisconsin — now had to try and plug back into their fall classes.
“These students potentially face great financial loss since they are not always entitled to a reimbursement of the tuition and room and board fees they will not be using,” State Rep. Cindi Duchow said in a Jan. 15 press release about the bipartisan legislation.
At that time, state law did not guarantee student service members would get tuition and fees returned, if being called to state active duty made it impossible to complete the semester, and if the time on state duty was less than 30 days. Private schools were also not bound by existing laws.
“We ended up having to work with many school leaders to get service tuition refunds for what they had paid but were not able to complete due to missing too much time with the deployment.” Droessler said.
Before Act 75, such enrollment protections only existed after a service member had been on active duty for more than 30 days. It did not take into account shorter periods of service.
“No more 30-day period needed for protections,” Droessler continued. “Protection starts on day one for active duty call-ups from all public and private colleges and they return tuition costs and fees to service members if they cannot return in time to stay in school.”
In addition to extending existing protections to service members called to active duty for less than 30 days, the new legislation requires all post-secondary schools, trade schools and institutions of higher education to give service members the choice of reimbursement for tuition and pro-rated room and board fees or no-cost re-enrollment in the next available offering of the class. Affected students are held harmless for re-registration or re-enrollment. Students also have the option of completing a class early if that class would end within 30 days of the initial call to active duty.
This type of assurance for college students in the National Guard or Reserves ultimately enhances the overall readiness of these components by reducing a potential conflict that could discourage them from continuing to serve.
“This is a big win for Wisconsin National Guard service members,” Droessler said.
The bill offers the same protection to college students in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard reserves if they are put on orders for less than 30 days.