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A Partial G.I. Bill Fix

July 26, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Veterans currently attending private colleges and universities that charge more than $17,500 in tuition and fees won’t see their tuition spike next month after all, after Congress approved a change to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill on Monday night. But veterans using their benefits to attend public universities in states where they are not residents might still have to come up with thousands of dollars on their own to pay for their studies after Aug. 1.

The bill, H.R. 1383, is another attempt to fine-tune the program’s method of paying for veterans’ education. Under the original Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, payments were capped at the combination of the highest in-state tuition and fees in a given state, which resulted in benefits that varied widely from state to state. In December, Congress voted to simplify the formula, capping payments at $17,500 nationwide. The move was widely supported by veterans’ groups and higher education organizations.

The change, which goes into effect Aug. 1., would primarily affect veterans in seven states -- Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas -- where the maximum payment was previously more than $17,500. The original legislation did not provide for students who were already attending college, meaning that they would have to figure out how to close the gap once the new formula goes into effect next week.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that the change would affect about 6,000 students.

The change means that students who were enrolled at private colleges before Jan. 4 may now complete their studies under the prior reimbursement rates. But students who are paying more than $17,500 in tuition at public institutions in states where they are not residents were not included in the Congressional fix. Neither are students attending technical programs with low tuition but very high fees, such as some in aeronautical engineering, said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a veterans’ advocacy group.

“We’ve got about a third done, and we’re still working on the other two-thirds,” Tarantino said of the veterans who are currently attending college and were depending on the old benefit structure. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that before Aug. 1. Congress hasn’t been willing to fix the rest.”

There is no official count of how many veterans are attending public institutions but paying out-of-state tuition; Tarantino said it could number in the thousands. Some institutions, aware of the high reimbursement rates in a handful of states, recruited veterans from those states specifically even though they knew the loophole would one day be closed, he said.

“Even if it’s one or two, you should be able to graduate with the benefit you started with,” he said.

While a separate Veterans Affairs initiative, the Yellow Ribbon Program, helps veterans attend private institutions that cost more than $17,500 through a matching-funds deal with individual colleges, fewer resources exist for veterans attending more expensive public institutions. On Aug. 1, those who can no longer pay tuition through their veterans’ benefits will have to turn to financial aid or student loans, Tarantino said.

With Congress preoccupied by budgetary and debt concerns, there is little appetite for more legislative fixes. Still, the change is probably not the last for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which has undergone controversy over delayed benefits as well as the 2010 revisions in the three years since it became law.

“Something with this type of scope, you’re never going to think of everything the first or second time around,” Tarantino said. “Things are going to come out of the woodwork. There are always going to be things that change.”

 

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