State and local officials say waiving in-state tuition for members of the Vermont National Guard would help Vermont compete with nearby states and address growing recruitment challenges.

Two bills being considered in Montpelier, H.72 and S.195, would shift Vermont’s education assistance program from interest-free loans to a full tuition benefit for state colleges.

Adjutant Gen. Steven Cray, an Essex Jct. resident, said Vermont is the only state in the Northeast without such a program. That’s made competing for recruits that wish to pursue higher education impossible, he said.

Cray reported the Vt. National Guard has a yearly turnover of about 450 soldiers and airmen, and last year the two branches under-recruited by 110, leaving more than 350 vacancies across the ranks.

“Our ability to accomplish our mission relies on the number of soldiers and airmen we have to perform their jobs,” Cray said.

Tech Sgt. Jesse Ranslow, a VTANG recruiter, said he saw the scenario play out with his own sister, a “straight-A, driven athlete” who left Vermont for the Maine Air National Guard to avoid massive education debt.

“There’s no telling how many [recruits] we are truly losing each month,” he said.

For Staff Sgt. Matthew Hemme, who recruits out of an office on Pearl Street, the lack of a tuition waiver has prompted at least a dozen recruits to choose other states. He said the Guard’s demographics will likely include more college-aged people if the bill passes.

“Just the thought of graduating with a bachelor’s and zero student loans – that resonates with a lot people,” he said.

On average, Guard members are now awarded up to $6,000 in loans, culled from the state’s current $250,000 assistance program. These can be forgiven if the member fulfills their service duties.

The VTNG reports data from other states shows between 5 and 6 percent of Guard members use education programs, while only 2 percent of Vermont members use the current program.

The proposed legislation would increase funding to $890,000. That could be used for free state college education or, at the rate of the University of Vermont’s resident tuition, go toward private colleges or skills training certificates.

The new program would apply to both resident and non-resident members of the Guard once they finish basic training. Members would sign a contract that obliges two years of service for each academic year of tuition benefits.

Guard officials say the proposal would not only bring in new personnel, but also help keep more young Vermonters in-state.

Essex Jct. Rep. Dylan Giambatista said this would address what local employers call one of their biggest roadblocks to hiring new employees: a lack of qualified applicants.

“Any time we can give residents more training and post-secondary education opportunities, we are helping our community,” he said. “These are the folks, as our demographics change and we enter the 21st century, that are going to be working in those high-skill, high-paying jobs.”

Giambatista also expressed concern about the recruitment woes, which could greatly impact a rural state like Vermont, especially considering its recent bouts of severe weather.

He called the proposal a “critical investment” and said he’s hopeful Gov. Phil Scott, who named the tuition benefit as a main policy proposal in his State of the State address earlier this month, will offer a budget that supports the program and lays out ways to pay for it.