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NY expands college aid for families of vets killed or severely injured in the line of duty

Photo from Gov. Cuomo's Office: Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today in New York City that college aid would immediately be available to families of veterans who died or were severely injured in the line of duty. He is joined at right by Mecca Nelson, whose husband Mario Nelson was killed in Iraq in 2006 when he was 26. The couple has a daughter, Mia.

Staff Reports Posted 17 April 2019 at 3:17 pm

Cuomo: “We can never replace the loved one lost, but we can lessen the hardship and make it a little easier to deal with the loss. And it is our honor, our obligation and our pleasure to do just that.”

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today directed the Higher Education Services Corporation to broaden the interpretation of eligibility for New York’s Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute (MERIT) Scholarship.

Under the new interpretation, college tuition and related costs will be covered for all children, spouses, and financial dependents of members of the United States Armed Forces who die or become severely and permanently disabled, or missing in action while performing their military duties.

Under the previous interpretation of the statute, only children, spouses, and financial dependents of veterans killed in a combat zone were eligible for the scholarship. The announcement, made during the Month of the Military Child, honors the sacrifices made by military families every day.

“Military service is more than just the active military member – I believe the entire family is in service, and we will honor that sacrifice and respect that service not just in words, not just with symbols, but with deeds,” Cuomo said. “That is why New York is taking immediate action to extend benefits to all those lost or disabled while on active duty, period. We can never replace the loved one lost, but we can lessen the hardship and make it a little easier to deal with the loss, and it is our honor, our obligation and our pleasure to do just that. We hope this gesture helps bring some comfort, peace, relief and justice to those grieving their loss.”

The governor’s announcement comes eight days after legislation to expand the scholarships failed to get out of a committee in the State Assembly. Steve Hawley, the local assemblyman from Batavia, sponsored the bill that was rejected in a committee on April 9 by a 15-11 vote.

Hawley and other state legislators spoke out against the legislation’s defeat, citing the state’s push to provide $27 million in college aid to children of undocumented immigrants. Hawley also said the state supports college programs in prisons for inmates.

Hawley issued this statement this afternoon:

“Gold Star Families and disabled veterans have been neglected for far too long and today we are finally righting an injustice and fulfilling our obligation to them,” he said. “We will never be able to fully repay our veterans and servicemembers for their role in protecting our nation but I am proud to have led the statewide bipartisan effort to see that the MERIT Scholarship is expanded. It is paramount to cover all of our nation’s heroes and their families under this program, and I thank Gov. Cuomo for doing the right thing.”

Assemblyman Mike Norris (R-Lockport) issued this statement:

“The outrage New Yorkers have felt at the Assembly Democrats’ decision to block legislation I sponsored to give college scholarships to the children of fallen or disabled military stems from the fact that all too often it seems our government does not do the right thing,” Norris said. “Today, I am proud to say it has and the children of our Gold Star heroes will be able to attend SUNY and CUNY college for free. It’s about time our government did the right thing, and I am so proud to have helped make this scholarship program a reality.”

Created in 2003 just after the start of the War in Iraq in an effort to provide greater support to New York’s military service members, the MERIT Scholarship covers up to four years of full-time undergraduate study (or five years in an approved five-year bachelor’s degree program) and includes the following components:

• Tuition: An amount equal to the actual tuition or the State University of New York’s (SUNY) in-state tuition, whichever is less.

• Non-tuition Costs: Includes room and board and allowances for books, supplies and transportation up to the average cost at SUNY Colleges.

• Residence: Students living on campus are awarded a higher room and board allowance than a commuter student. If housing is not available for students on campus they will receive the same allowance as students living on campus. For the current academic year, recipients will receive a maximum of $24,250 if living on campus and a maximum of $15,750 if commuting to college.

In 2018, an estimated 111 students received this award, totaling $1.8 million. Since its implementation in 2003, MERIT scholarships have helped 387 veterans’ family members pay their college tuition, Cuomo’s Office said today.

State Sen. Robert Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) is the ranking member of the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs. He issued this statement: “This issue has always been about doing whatever it takes to ensure that our Gold Star families are treated with the honor and dignity that they deserve. While Gov. Cuomo and I disagree on many issues, in this case, we both recognize that helping the families of our severely injured and deceased service members is something everyone should support.”

An excerpt of Cuomo’s remarks today includes the following:

“Many issues that we deal with today are complicated, there are competing factors, there are plusses and minuses, there are economic calculations. But some issues are more straightforward. There are issues that we judge with our heart and our conscious, our morals and our values. These issues raise a simple, but a profound question. What is the right thing to do? Today’s issues dealing with military families and their benefactors ask us that question: what is the right thing to do? To our military families, we express our gratitude, our respect and our admiration. We owe them everything because they pay the price for our freedom. Military service is about more than just the active service member. I believe the entire family is in service – children who miss their parents, mothers and fathers who worry every night whether their son or daughter is safe, spouses who carry the day-to-day burden and sense of trepidation every time the phone rings, wondering, could this be that dreaded call? We thank you and we applaud you and we are all in your debt.

“I’m sure the service members who have put themselves in harm’s way always have one question just before they embark on a mission: what if something happens to me? Who will take care of my loved ones? Who will help my children? How will my spouse or significant other handle all the obligations? The piece that we can offer when that questions arises is the firm belief that their country, their government, the American people will do “the right thing.” That, we will honor, the sacrifice, that we will respect the service and we will do it not just in words, not just with symbols, but with deeds. As Governor of New York I can tell you that all New Yorkers honor that obligation.

“The state in the past has offered the MERIT scholarship program to provide free college to spouses and dependents for those disabled or lost in combat or in training for combat. There is now a new question as to whether those benefits should be expanded to cover those lost or disabled in performing their military duties, whether in a combat zone or not. My answer is of course, yes they should. New Yorkers want to extend benefits to all those lost or disabled while on active duty, period.

“There is also a question of when the budget should start to fund this program and whether it should wait for next April’s budget. My position is clear: we support an extension of the benefits and we support doing it now. The state will manage the finances to accomplish these goals and today I direct the Higher Education Services Corporation to make those changes immediately. We’re not going to wait until next April to make sure we honor our obligation. This is truly the least that we can do. Our support and commitment to Mecca Nelson and Mia is absolute. It is as absolute as their husband and father’s commitment was to us.

“A major parental concern is being able to help their child afford a college education and New York will make that promise. We will fulfill that commitment. Tuition, room and board at our great SUNY and CUNY universities. We can never replace the loved one lost, but we can lessen the hardship and make it a little easier to deal with the loss. And it is our honor, our obligation and our pleasure to do just that. And we do that today. We hope this gesture helps bring some comfort, peace, relief and justice to those grieving their loss. It is a loss that we all feel. We will do all we can to lessen your burden and we will remember you in our thoughts and in our prayers.”

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