FOX UNDERCOVER - Harvard University is feeling the heat this Veteran's Day, under fire for what the father of one student says is an unpatriotic and anti-military policy over ROTC membership and financial aid.
Madison Coveno's acceptance to the prestigious Ivy League university was a proud moment for her family, enough for her father to agree to pay the entire bill himself – more than $50,000 the first year for tuition, room and board.
"It's a huge burden to us, but when an opportunity like Harvard comes along, it's something you don't say no to your child," said father Rick Coveno. "Her freshman year, we got zero financial aid and paid over $50,000 out of our savings and our money. So that was killing us."
The following year, Harvard awarded Madison about $15,000 in aid because her sister started attending an expensive college; however, that aid was suddenly taken away after Madison joined the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC.
"When you found out they were taking that money away, was it like a punch in the gut?" FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked Coveno.
"It sure was. Both my wife and I were livid," Coveno replied.
Madison's commitment to the ROTC means she, like others, are committed to serving in the military for four years after she graduates. Now, she's required to train multiple times each week at MIT on top of her Harvard class load.
In exchange, ROTC gives Madison $18,000 a year toward her college education.
"So we called, ‘Hey, why aren't we getting our financial aid anymore? We qualified for this as a family.' And they said, ‘Now you're receiving ROTC tuition assistance, and so the Harvard financial aid, you're not going to get that anymore,'" Coveno said.
It's a decision that didn't sit well with Coveno, who is himself a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "It's unpatriotic and anti-military and it needs to be changed."
Harvard has had a strained relationship with the military. Until last year, ROTC has not had a formal presence on campus since the early 1970s, a move that started with tension over the Vietnam War.
In September 2011, Harvard President Drew Faust welcomed back ROTC after the government ended its don't- ask don't-tell policy, allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military.
"I developed a deeper understanding for the need for a military presence on Harvard's campus," Faust said. "Over decades and in their own distinctive ways, both the American military and American higher education have been engines of inclusion and wellsprings of service. The relationship we renewed today marks progress in that common pursuit."
The Covenos were at first heartened by those comments.
"We thought that was a huge change, a very positive change, and we were excited and then our daughter signs up for ROTC. So a lot of things were looking really good for us," he said.
Now he says the ROTC scholarship should not be counted against the family's need for financial aid.
"From our perspective, ROTC is earned money from her five-year service commitment in the military and it's not some grant or other free money," Coveno said. "That's very little incentive, almost a disincentive, to do all that extra work for ROTC when if you do nothing you get about the same amount of financial aid."
Harvard would not talk to FOX Undercover about Madison's financial aid, but tells us it "strongly supports students who choose a military career."
A university spokesman also said in a statement that "more than 60 percent of families receive financial aid, with an average award of over $40,000 per year."
Harvard's president did write Coveno, calling Madison "an impressive young woman" and saying the University's faculty committee that is reviewing ROTC matters is "aware of the concerns you raise regarding our financial aid policy."
Harvard also talked to Senator Scott Brown's office, saying, "there is unfortunately nothing that can be done to get that scholarship money back. It is a Harvard policy to reduce funds if a student received an outside scholarship, such as ROTC, and it applies to everyone."
"Does it seem fair?" Beaudet asked Coveno.
"Not at all," he said. "It's frustrating that their formula penalizes military service that way when it's really not needed."
It's not clear how often schools are slashing financial aid because of ROTC scholarships, but the problem is not unique to Harvard. At less expensive schools, the ROTC scholarship covers the full cost of tuition plus room and board.
The Covenos aren't giving up. They're hoping lawmakers in Washington can address the issue so that ROTC scholarships are not counted against the financial needs of families.
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