A Tale of Two GI Bills

In choosing between the new and old educational benefit programs, veterans have many variables to consider. Here's a primer.
October 3, 2008

The new Post-9/11 GI Bill, signed into law this summer, marks a major investment in veterans' educational benefits.

It's also an undeniably complex piece of legislation.

Complicating matters further, the peacetime Montgomery GI Bill already in existence isn’t going off the books -- and in fact has been enhanced, the benefits boosted this year by 20 percent.

"What we have here is a situation where the Post-9/11 GI Bill did not replace all the other education programs we already administer. It was just simply another layer" -- albeit a mammoth one -- says Keith M. Wilson, director of the education service at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"In one respect they complement one another, but the challenge is administering. And by administering, I mean making sure all our potential program users understand their options. And that's very difficult to do. These individuals, for example, they're making decisions when they're 18 or 19 years old based on a whole lot of information that really doesn't apply to them at that point," Wilson says.

To summarize the two basic programs: Under the Montgomery GI Bill’s new payment rates, active duty veterans get $1,321 in their pockets each month (although some veterans qualify for extra funding and can receive as much as $1,800 per month). By comparison, under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, slated to go into effect next August, veterans will get their full tuition and fees paid for -- up to the cost of the priciest undergraduate tuition at a public university in a veteran’s state -- as well as a monthly housing allowance and an annual $1,000 book stipend. The monthly housing allowance ranges from $730 to $2,650, with the average amount nationwide set at $1,250.

The Post-9/11 bill, however, for all its obviously generous benefits for the college-bound, has some limitations.

Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill (also called the Webb bill, after its sponsor and chief champion, U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia), veterans who study half-time or less, or who enroll in a distance education program, are eligible for only the tuition benefit, and not the substantial housing subsidy.

Apprenticeship programs, on-the-job-training, and flight training programs, which are covered under the Montgomery program, are not covered under the Post-9/11 bill at all. Along those lines, the new Post-9/11 benefit applies only to students enrolled in education or training programs offered by "institutions of higher learning" -- degree-granting institutions, essentially, as Wilson explains. As an interesting distinction, the program of study itself doesn't have to be a degree program, but the institution the veteran attends must be degree-granting. A student could use the Post-9/11 bill to pay for truck driving training at a community college, for instance, but not at a non-degree granting postsecondary institution; under Montgomery, the student could attend either.

So despite the hype about the new Post-9/11 GI Bill -- which will most benefit traditional students who attend a bricks and mortar college full-time -- certain veterans may still find that the more flexible and newly bolstered Montgomery GI Bill gives them a better deal.

“The thing is, under very few circumstances will the Chapter 30 [Montgomery] benefit be worth more than the Chapter 33 [Post-9/11] benefit,” says Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which posted a calculator on its Web site that veterans can use to compare their benefits under the two programs. “However, in those circumstances, it is useful for our veterans.”

Campbell explains that the 20 percent boost in Montgomery benefits was intended to complement the new GI Bill, to “make sure that no veteran, post-9/11 service or not, will get less benefits. Everybody who doesn’t get the full benefit under Post-9/11 is still going to get a 20 percent increase.”

“We sacrificed simplicity for a better benefit. So that means our job now is to make sure that people understand, to the best of their ability, what their benefits are," Campbell says.

'Should I Convert?'

Think all this seems rather confusing? Consider also a matter of timing.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill doesn’t require veterans to pay a penny into the system in advance. But to be eligible for the Montgomery program -- which could prove to provide better benefits for certain veterans who enroll in online learning programs, for example -- service members must buy into the benefits to the tune of $1,200 their first year in the military.

“That’s not the right time to ask them to make a decision about what they want to be at a later time in their life,” says Faith DesLauriers, legislative chair for the National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators and director of university veterans affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Florida. “You’re asking a new enlistee, ‘Well, if you do this one we’ve got to take $100 a month out of your check. But you do this one, it’s going to cost you nothing.’ I think you’re going to see that the number of people who are going to sign up for the Montgomery GI Bill is going to be less and less as time goes on.”

Which is not something DesLauriers would like to see. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which offers a clear monetary incentive for traditional, full-time study at the public flagship university while excluding certain technical training paths, “absolutely limits options," DesLauriers says.

"Your veteran population very often consists of adult learners, people who are married, and/or have children. They already have financial obligations and they are not your traditional student," she says.

“The veteran in Connecticut, their only concern is how this new GI Bill affects them,” says Jack Mordente, director of veterans affairs at Southern Connecticut State University. “I am getting the question: Should I convert?” from the Montgomery to Post-9/11 program.

For his students at a public university, “I see no reason why they wouldn’t convert,” Mordente says.

“Obviously it’s a great GI Bill for people who are going into higher education.”

At the same time, Mordente says, “A veteran in the Post-9/11 doesn’t have the ability to go to on-the-job training,” as one example. “The veteran should have the right, in my opinion, to choose whatever program they want and not be limited by government regulations."

'Keep Your Options Open'

Right now, though, veterans can still do on-the-job-training, or flight training, or truck driving training at a non-degree institution, or everything they could do under Montgomery -- as long as they're eligible for the Montgomery program. Or, as of next August, they could get big benefits toward traditional higher education under Post-9/11.

So all the options, and more, are still there; it's just they're scattered across two different educational entitlement programs.

Wilson, of the VA's education service, says the department is gathering a list of variables veterans should consider in choosing between the two programs -- including whether they're enrolling in online learning, are attending college full- or part-time, or if they want to pursue a degree- or non-degree program. Another variable: The Post-9/11 program is usable for 15 years after service, and the Montgomery program for 10.

Yet another is whether the veteran is attending college in a state that waives veterans' tuition -- meaning, in that case, that the federal government won't be paying a tuition bill for the college under Post-9/11. Such veterans would still be eligible for the housing and book stipend (both paid directly to them) under the Post-9/11 bill, and could compare that total lump sum with that available under Montgomery.

So, given all these variables, how should an 18-year-old enlistee decide between signing up for (and paying into) Montgomery or opting (and paying nothing) for Webb?

"Anybody going into active duty right now, we recommend that they continue to sign up for the Montgomery GI Bill," says Wilson. That's because veterans can opt later, when it comes time to actually use their benefits, to switch to Post-9/11 but not vice versa -- though once the switch from Montgomery to Post-9/11 is made, that's irrevocable, too.

Service members who pay into the Montgomery Bill and later switch to the Post-9/11 GI Bill can get their $1,200 enrollment fee back, but with an important caveat -- only after they use all 36 months of their entitlement.

History suggests that most won't get that money back. Only about 7 percent of veterans exhaust their benefit.

“I do think the military is doing the right thing by pointing out that the Webb bill is not the right thing for every student,” says Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association. Miller spoke after an event on veterans' education sponsored by the association in Washington last week; as the association spans a mix of degree-granting and non-degree granting institutions, the distinction between the two GI Bills was a particularly hot topic.

"Young GIs should always keep their options open."

“Part of the problem is, why is the system is so complex?” Miller asks. “This is a program that people with law degrees and Ph.D.s don’t understand.”


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