When Perez's appeal to UNC was denied, she and Thigpen's group sued.
"Mrs. Perez provided ample evidence to both UNC System Schools in order to substantiate her domicile as a resident in and of the State of North Carolina," she said in her suit, filed Nov. 8. "Mrs. Perez filed for a residency appeal hearing with UNC Pembroke, was denied any representational assistance and in turn her appeal was denied after being treated with malice and contempt by UNC Pembroke officials ..."
The university system has not yet responded to the complaint, but spokeswoman Joni Worthington denied discrimination against Perez or any other veteran.
"We certainly believe that the university has complied fully with federal and state law," she told The Associated Press. "On the contrary, we have demonstrated a strong commitment to be very supportive of the military, which is obviously very important here in North Carolina."
Under North Carolina law, active-duty service members stationed here are to be considered residents. But Perez had already been discharged by the time she was accepted at the schools and had not yet been back the requisite year.
"The burden of proof is on the student," Worthington says.
Worthington agreed that because of the GI Bill changes, "recipients are financially disadvantaged if they choose to attend a public institution of higher education. We believe the level of tuition benefits available at private institutions should apply to public institutions, as well."
Last year, Thigpen's group helped draft the Veterans Education Equity Act, which would amend Title 38 to extend the $17,500 tuition cap to public institutions. The bill — introduced by U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. — never got beyond the subcommittee hearings.
Thigpen says his group will renew its efforts in the next Congress. But some states have already decided to act on their own.
According to Student Veterans of America, nine states have passed legislation to offer in-state tuition rates for veterans, regardless of how long they've lived there. Five other states have legislation pending, says Mike Dakduk, the group's executive director.
In 2011, Arizona amended its laws to grant veterans "immediate classification as an in-state student" ''while in continuous attendance toward the degree for which currently enrolled." and "demonstrated objective evidence of intent to be a resident of Arizona." The Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education changed its rules in 2009 to grant all veterans in-state status.
"These courageous men and women have made great sacrifices in leaving behind their families, their jobs and all that is familiar to them in life to serve our state and our nation," chairman Frank Caprio said at the time. "These veterans deserve our admiration and respect, and aiding their efforts to secure a college degree is one small way we can and should show our appreciation for everything they have done."
In Texas and Wisconsin, veterans who were residents at the time of enlistment retain permanent in-state tuition eligibility in the state university system. The Illinois Veteran Grant program pays for up to 120 credit hours of tuition, but veterans must have lived in Illinois at the time of enlistment and have returned to the state no more than six months after discharge.
Lawmakers introduced a bill in California's General Assembly last February to grant veterans with at least three years' service one year's worth of resident status so they can begin their studies immediately. It died in the appropriations committee without even coming up for a vote.
Veterans can attend Connecticut's state schools tuition-free, provided they've lived in the state at least a year upon enrollment. An attempt in 2011 to amend that requirement failed.
But at the University of Connecticut, a veteran seeking a tuition waiver need only "be domiciled in Connecticut at the time of acceptance."