On Yellow Ribbon, Shades of Gray

Colleges will soon decide whether to waive tuition for veterans as part of the Yellow Ribbon program, a component of the new GI Bill. A VA official answers some questions.
February 4, 2009

WASHINGTON – Recent news reports raised questions about how willing and able financially strapped private colleges will be to waive veterans’ tuition under the Yellow Ribbon program, a component of the new GI Bill. Under the bill, which goes into effect in August, veterans can get their tuition covered up to the cost of the most expensive public undergraduate tuition and fee rate in the state; under the Yellow Ribbon provision, colleges charging above that threshold can choose to enter into matching agreements with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to waive some or all of the remaining balance.

Under the proposed rules for administering the program, colleges will have flexibility in determining the maximum number of veterans for whom they will waive tuition, and the amount of outstanding tuition they’ll waive – a college could opt to waive just an extra $1,000 of tuition for up to two veterans, for instance, or could opt to waive $10,000 for 200. (After they set their parameters, however, colleges can’t pick and choose: They have to waive tuition for veterans who are admitted on a first-come, first-serve basis, and waive the same proportion of unmet charges for everyone eligible.)

And the Yellow Ribbon program is not just for private colleges. Public colleges, too, can enter into agreements to cover the full costs for out-of-state students, for instance, or for graduate students who pay higher tuition rates.

Keith Wilson, director of education services for the VA, joked that he stirred up interest in his Tuesday presentation on the Yellow Ribbon program by inciting some controversy. Wilson was recently quoted in Stars and Stripes as saying, “Most schools aren’t going to want to do a Yellow Ribbon program … because their finances have been hit too hard in the last couple of months.” He also said some colleges "may do something token,” but “not what we would have expected had we asked the question six months ago.”

Wilson began his remarks at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities by smoothing the waters, acknowledging that it’s premature to say how many colleges will commit, and to what degree. “We’re not at the point where we would expect schools to participate yet. You are waiting for some key information from us,” he said.

Specifically, he said colleges are awaiting publication of final regulations for administering the GI Bill, including the Yellow Ribbon program; the deadline for submitting comments on the draft regulations was January 22. Colleges are also waiting for the VA to announce the cap on total tuition it will cover in each state, based on public institutions’ rates.

While the VA did mail an informational letter to colleges, it hasn’t yet begun soliciting Yellow Ribbon agreements. The timeline is short, however: The agency hopes to finalize agreements over the next two months, and to begin publicizing participating institutions by April.

Questions from audience members Tuesday gave a flavor of what college officials are considering when it comes to participation. The questions were as varied as the institutions represented.

Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity University, an institution in Washington, D.C., which in its undergraduate women's college serves a high proportion of low-income city residents. She said that while the institution is very interested in participating, officials are challenged by the fact that the base public tuition rate at the University of District Columbia is so low, at just over $3,000, meaning the gap between the public tuition covered by the GI Bill and the private tuition Trinity charges yawn especially wide. “We are in an extremely inequitable situation in the nation’s capital and we’d like some help with that,” she said.

“I guess the good thing is that’s not the first time we’ve heard that,” Wilson responded. “It’s part of the issue that we’re starting to understand, the uniqueness of this program in terms of tailoring the program to the locale.” He said that while the difference is particularly stark in D.C., "You're by no means alone. Florida, for example, has low [public] tuition." He said that it's a statutory issue.

A representative from Harvard University asked if the institution’s various professional and graduate schools, each with their own policies on institutional aid, could enter into separate agreements with the VA. “Some of them may be more interested than others…. They also may have different admissions timelines," said Suzanne Day, the director of federal relations.

“We’re grappling with that right now. I had a meeting yesterday morning on just this topic and I would say we didn’t come to resolution on the issue. Because it is complex,” Wilson said. While the VA wants to be as flexible as possible, “We don’t want schools having so many different Yellow Ribbon agreements that they would use those as a mechanism to siphon veterans into certain kinds of programs…. We do have a concern that thousands and thousands of Yellow Ribbon agreements could be used by schools to satisfy their own specific desires of filling this program or that program. And we don’t want that to happen.”

A representative from an association of Massachusetts colleges asked a question about the capacity of small colleges to better serve veterans. Smaller colleges, she said, are wondering what VA resources, particularly in counseling, are available, “which is a new issue for them.” Wilson suggested that a network of more than 200 Vet Centers across the country might be these colleges’ first resource. And he said, too, that there's discussion of whether there should be a VA presence on campuses. "Maybe yes, maybe no, I don't know if I'd be prepared to provide an answer to that" -- but there is a precedent. "Some of you may remember the Vet Rep on Campus program in the 70s."

In an interview, Thomas O’Neill, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Nebraska, said that some colleges may be conservative for planning reasons, as opposed to financial ones. And of course they're waiting for the final regulations. “They would like to be able to participate, but they want to know what they’ll be participating in before they give their commitment.”

Susan Hattan, a senior consultant for NAICU, added that it's still unclear if colleges "that start small on the side of caution" can adjust their level of participation in the Yellow Ribbon program upward. (Colleges don't want permission to adjust downward, however, as "that would be unfair.")

James Selbe, assistant vice president of lifelong learning for the American Council on Education, agreed that many colleges are waiting to formalize their plans until the final regulations for the GI Bill are available. However, he said, “We’re hearing strong interest,” including from public colleges. “I haven’t heard anyone say that they are not going to participate. I don’t know what that’s evidence of.”

“I think we’re going to see significant participation,” Wilson said in an interview. “”Whether a school, either public or private, will participate to the degree it would have some time ago [when their financial circumstances were better], it’s premature.”


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