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 never got beyond subcommittee hearings.
Some states already have decided to act on their own.
According to Student Veterans of America, nine states have passed legislation to offer in-state tuition rates to veterans, regardless of how long they've lived there. Five other states have legislation pending, said 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. At the University of Connecticut, though, a veteran seeking a tuition waiver need only "be domiciled in Connecticut at the time of acceptance."
In Iowa, resident status is left up to each school's board of regents.
Dakduk said this patchwork of rules has left a lot of veterans bewildered, to the point where many either pay the difference out of pocket, take out loans or just give up.
"By and large, veterans don't complain about it," he said. "They kind of just suck it up and move forward."
Justin Curley refused to just suck it up.
The Missouri native was a medic in the Air Force. Like many veterans, though, he learned that those skills didn't automatically translate to a job in the civilian world.
After leaving the service in 2009, Curley moved to New Orleans and applied to the nursing program at Delgado Community College, but because he hadn't been employed in the state for at least one year, the chancellor denied him in-state status.
Curley took out loans to cover the difference, about $3,000 a year, but a friend convinced him to fight, and he launched a petition drive on the website change.org.
"Essentially, because I constantly moved with the Air Force, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System is taking away the veterans benefits I rightfully earned in favor of unwritten policies that are left up to the discretion and judgment of the board and chancellor," he wrote. "To me, that says I'm a resident of nowhere. All because of my service."
In October, Curley met with newly installed Chancellor Monty Sullivan. Not only did Sullivan grant Curley the in-state rate, he refunded his money back to fall 2011.
Curley said recruiters tell a lot of "half-truths" to convince people to enlist, but the most important promise -- that of an education -- shouldn't come with strings, he said.
"There wasn't any fine print," said Curley, 30, who has two more semesters before getting his registered nurse certification. "There wasn't any, 'Well, IF you're considered in-state,' 'IF you're not considered in-state, 'You MIGHT have to pay this,' 'You MIGHT have to pay that.' There wasn't like some little quiet announcer guy in the background saying there are going to be all these stipulations. We were just told this is what it's going to be. ...
"If we contributed to the security of our country, isn't that worth more than having lived in a state in a year?" he asks. "It just seems kind of silly."
In a follow-up email, Worthington said that, because Perez-Rodriguez is currently stationed in North Carolina, Perez "would be considered an in-state resident were she to re-apply to a UNC institution now." Perez argues that she had already established residency based on her own active-duty service in North Carolina.
Perez dipped into her 3-year-old daughter's college fund to pay for one semester at Pembroke but has since transferred to Methodist University in Fayetteville, a private school. She said the government is covering the entire cost.
Her original plan was to become a physician's assistant. Now, she's going for a master's degree in public policy.