To Tie the Yellow Ribbon?

Colleges grapple with complexities of federal matching program that will supplement veterans' benefits under the new GI Bill.
May 1, 2009

The deadline for colleges to sign up as Yellow Ribbon institutions has been extended from May 15 to June 15 – and it’s a good thing, too, as many colleges are still grappling with the program's many complexities. Numerous private colleges -- large and small, internationally-known and regional, near and far from military bases -- are signing up, even as others hold back.

Under the new, Post-9/11 GI Bill, and the Yellow Ribbon Program specifically, colleges can enter into dollar-for-dollar matching agreements with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cover any outstanding tuition and fees above those covered by the base GI Bill benefit, which varies widely across the nation because it is pegged to the highest resident, undergraduate public university charges in each state. Private colleges can enter into Yellow Ribbon agreements to cover all or part of the difference between the base benefit and their charges for up to a specified number of students, but so too can public colleges enter into Yellow Ribbon agreements, to cover the balance for non-resident veterans or those enrolled in more costly graduate programs, like law or business.

“Institutions are having to put a lot of time and thought into navigating their way through the technicalities of the agreement, and trying to figure out how best to serve the veteran population and at the same time balance that with obviously diminishing budgets,” said Jim Selbe, assistant vice president for lifelong learning at the American Council on Education.

"I’m confident that we’re gong to see a significant number of both publics and privates participating in the Yellow Ribbon. The greatest change is that some of those institutions that had hoped to participate to the maximum degree possible [i.e. cover half the gap, with the VA covering the rest] are going to have to limit their participation, at least in the first year," Selbe said.

'A Strong Response'

“Generally speaking, there’s a learning phase that a lot of folks are going through right now because the way the benefit is structured is fundamentally different than anything we’ve structured before. It is specifically tied to the cost of education across the country,” said Keith Wilson, director of the education service at the VA. Wilson declined to discuss specific numbers of colleges that have signed onto the Yellow Ribbon Program so far, but added: “What I can say, though, is we have had a strong response.”

"Small colleges, large colleges, it’s really just been kind of a microcosm of colleges overall that we’re seeing come in so far.”

Among the colleges that have confirmed their plans to participate to Inside Higher Ed are Adelphi, Fordham, Lewis, Nebraska Wesleyan, Ohio Wesleyan and Robert Morris Universities; Rollins and Westminster Colleges, and Rochester Institute of Technology. (The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has also been maintaining its own, unofficial list of colleges that have publicly announced an intent to participate, available here.)

George Washington University on Monday made a major announcement about its plans to participate, at an estimated cost to the institution of $2.5 million over the next academic year.

The single biggest institution that veterans enroll in, the University of Phoenix, announced it would participate at the maximum level in March. Also in the for-profit education sector, DeVry University is participating at the maximum rate, as are two other DeVry Inc. holdings (Keller Graduate School of Management and Chamberlain College of Nursing). For Apollo and Western Career Colleges, DeVry Inc. is providing up to $1,500 per veteran toward closing the gap.

As the GI Bill made its way through Congress last year, there was much discussion about how the much-expanded benefits would open doors to the most elite and expensive colleges in the nation. Among the Ivies, Dartmouth College plans to participate fully (not surprisingly, since its outgoing president, James Wright, championed the new GI Bill).

At Columbia University, 15 of 17 schools are planning to participate, with each school separately determining the match it will offer, said Anna O'Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the School of General Studies, which is doing the maximum match, of 50 percent, to cover the difference between the $970 per-credit hour base benefit in New York and the school's $1,210 per-credit hour tuition. The university's other two undergraduate colleges are those not participating, O'Sullivan said, in part because their more flush financial aid budgets are disbursed based on need.

Indeed, Princeton University will not be participating because all of its aid is need-based, and the Yellow Ribbon Program is not. "Because the Yellow Ribbon program runs counter to the benefits that we would afford to veterans who would attend Princeton and receive full support through our aid program, Princeton has opted not to participate," Cass Cliatt, a university spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "The key point in our consideration was that we have a financial aid program that admits students on a need-blind basis. We provide aid on the basis of need, and we meet the full assessed need of all students through a generous no-loan program in which grants don’t have to be repaid. The average grant next year is expected to be $36,000, and any veteran who applies to Princeton and is admitted would be very generously supported."

Brown University is interested in participating but hasn't made an official decision yet. As for Harvard University, it's also interested in participating, according to Kevin Galvin, director of news and media relations. "However, because the final regulations were only recently released, many Harvard schools have already allocated institutional aid dollars to assist students matriculating in the fall. Nevertheless, we are working with individual schools throughout the University to determine their ability to join the program this year. A decision is expected in the next few weeks, but we will certainly meet the VA's deadline of June 15th."

'Work to Make it Work'

Officials at some colleges indicated they were still deciding whether to participate, although many more said they'd decided, but hadn't hammered out the details. Julie Green Bataille, a Georgetown University spokeswoman, said, for instance, "We know we're going to participate but are still working out how we will administer it. We're awaiting clarification on some implementation issues from the VA."

Questions of implementation are still prevalent, and in some cases they're tied up with questions of parity (or imparity) across states. Because the base benefits vary so much, influenced in many cases by expensive outlier programs, the amount private colleges would have to contribute to cover the difference varies, too. That complicates financial calculations in some cases, and in others, makes the institutional decision to participate a no-brainer.

Consider Texas, which has the highest base benefit. Capped at $1,333 per credit hour for tuition, and $12,130 per term for fees, the base benefit fully covers costs at private colleges in most cases. Rice University, for example, intends to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program but in most cases there won’t be any gap for it to cover (there will be in the case of its Graduate School of Management).

Washington, D.C., however, has one of the lower base benefits, capped at $105 per credit hour for tuition, and $657 per term for fees. At George Washington University (which, granted, has a reputation for being especially expensive), that makes for about a $36,000 gap. George Washington on Monday announced it would indeed front $18,000 per undergraduate veteran to cover, with the VA match, that entire gap. For graduate students, GW will provide a smaller amount, up to $3,800 per veteran toward the balance. "We’re hoping to attract veterans to GW and make it accessible to them financially," said Bob Chernak, a senior vice president.

Suffice to say, not every college can afford a GW-style investment. Also in D.C., Trinity University plans to participate, but in the planning process is budgeting for a much more modest total investment, with $100,000 being the ballpark figure under discussion.

“Some people will say, 'Well, private institutions should just do this.' For many of us, this is real cash, or if it’s not real cash, it’s a discount, which means it’s lost revenue that will come out of something else," said Patricia McGuire, Trinity's president. "We would take that out of our discount pool and that means that some other discounts will not occur."

“We really want to reach out to the women vets," in particular, McGuire said (Trinity's undergraduate college is for women only). "We’re just very troubled by the fact that there’s little parity for the D.C. institutions. That’s really a difficulty. Whereas [the base benefit in] D.C. is $105 per credit hour, New York is $970. That’s a huge disparity. It seems to me that the way this program was set up doesn’t make much sense if the goal is to get a lot of institutions to participate in it."

“Having said that, all of us in higher ed are good about complaining about the program but it also is our job to work to make it work," McGuire said.

California, meanwhile, is a particularly special case. There, the base tuition benefit listed by the VA recently dropped to zero (that’s because California claims that its public colleges don’t charge tuition at all. But the "fees" at these colleges are equivalent to what's called "tuition and fees" elsewhere). Tuition and fees are calculated separately under the new GI Bill, meaning that if the updated number stands, veterans could apply $0 toward private college tuition in California (they could apply up to $6,586.54 per term toward their private college fees, but of course most private colleges structure their costs so they’re tuition-heavy, not fee-heavy).

The recent shift in the base benefit for California (it originally was listed at $254 per credit hour) has upset some veterans' groups in the state and left some private colleges scrambling. Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, said on Monday that he expects fewer private colleges will participate in the Yellow Ribbon program because of the change, which he called "silly. ...There is this artifact that California doesn’t charge tuition but I think ultimately the fees in California work like tuition and the Veterans Administration ought to understand that.’

One California college that's still considering its decision on participation is Stanford University. "They've extended the deadline until 6/15 and changed the guidance about what the base benefits will be for California so we're still trying to sort things out," Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokeswoman, said via e-mail.

Traditions, Old and New

Despite the complications in some cases, for many, signing up for Yellow Ribbon was an easy choice. "Once the Yellow Ribbon Program came out, we did a quick calculation and learned, 'Wow, this is very doable for a school like Robert Morris University,'" said Gregory G. Dell'Omo, president the Pennsylvania school. Robert Morris' tuition is around $20,000, its average discount rate is 27 percent, and Pennsylvania's base benefit is relatively high ($700 per credit hour).

"Financially, it's very doable for us to do it, and secondly, again, it carries on the tradition of Robert Morris University, hopefully," Dell'Omo said, explaining that the university has had a history of attracting veterans.

Fordham University, meanwhile, has relatively few veterans now -- 17 who are receiving benefits, plus about 23 students who are active-duty or reserve service members. "We have no way of knowing who would take us up on the Yellow Ribbon Program," said Peter Vaughan, dean of the Graduate School of Social Service. "But we're certainly prepared to move forward and to make a Fordham education as affordable as we can to any veteran who wants to have one."


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