700 Colleges Tied the Yellow Ribbon

June 25, 2009

About 700 colleges signed up for the new Post-9/11 GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon Program, which allows colleges to enter into dollar-for-dollar matching agreements with the federal government to pay veterans' educational costs above those covered by the base GI Bill benefit (which varies by state and is tied to undergraduate, resident public university tuition rates). While the Department of Veterans Affairs has not yet released its final list of participating colleges, Keith Wilson, director of the VA’s education service, expects the 700 figure to stay pretty stable. “It’ll grow a little bit. I know we’ve still got some [cases] where we’re seeking clarification from the school, and a couple we need additional information from; the forms weren’t filled out completely. But it’s not going to change dramatically.”

“I am pleased,” Wilson said of the close-to-final tally. “We really didn’t know what to expect. Obviously it’s a new program; obviously, also, it’s very different than anything folks are familiar with, so there were bound to be a lot of questions on responsibilities and roles and administrative issues. But a lot of schools have really stepped up. I’m pleased to see this amount of participation in the first year.” The Post-9/11 GI Bill goes into effect in August.

Under the new GI Bill's Yellow Ribbon Program, colleges and universities can enter into separate matching agreements at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and for different colleges or professional schools. Colleges predetermine the maximum number of eligible veterans they’ll support and the maximum amount they’ll contribute per student, per year. “I can say that we noticed, dollar-wise, most of the schools contributed the maximum amount,” said Wilson (the maximum amount being half the difference between the tuition and fees charged and those covered under the base GI Bill benefit).

“The number of students they’re offering it to is really all over the map – from single digits to unlimited," Wilson said.

The majority of those participating are private, non-profit colleges, although proprietary institutions are also well-represented on the list – and they historically attract the greatest numbers of veterans attending college on GI Bill benefits. By far the biggest destination for veterans, the University of Phoenix, makes repeat appearances on the list, having signed agreements to support unlimited numbers of veterans at various campus locations as well as for its online programs.

Public universities make up the smallest share of the colleges participating, Wilson said. (While the base Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit already covers in-state, undergraduate costs at public universities, public institutions can still enter into Yellow Ribbon agreements to cover the extra costs for out-of-state students or for those attending more expensive graduate programs.) The public college with the largest numbers of veterans enrolled, the University of Maryland University College, is participating, and the university is contributing $615 per veteran for up to 3,000 veterans.

The preliminary list includes plenty of obscure places but also some big names – among those participating are all of the Ivies save Princeton University, which opted not to deviate from its policy of awarding aid based solely on need. Among the liberal arts colleges participating are Amherst, Pomona, Swarthmore and Williams Colleges.

The amount of money a college would have to contribute to participate in Yellow Ribbon at the maximum level varies based on that college’s costs, on the one hand, but also the base benefit in a state -- which varies dramatically. The maximum tuition payable to veterans per-credit in Washington, D.C., for instance, is $105, while in Texas, it's $1,333. The higher the base benefit, and the lower the private college's tuition, the smaller the gap to be covered through Yellow Ribbon.

California’s private colleges are arguably the most disadvantaged under the funding formula: since the state's public colleges technically don’t charge tuition (but "fees" that are really tuition by another name), the tuition benefit for veterans attending California colleges is zero. Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, had projected that the zeroed-out tuition benefit would lead to lower participation in Yellow Ribbon among California’s nonprofit California colleges. He said Wednesday: “It looks like it did… You’ve got a lot of proprietaries on the list that stayed in… but if you look at some key [non-profit] institutions that I thought were going to participate, they didn't."

Many still did, however – and, again, not just the big names (Stanford University is participating, contributing $3,000 per year for up to 50 students). William Jessup University, a Christian college with about 450 students in Rocklin, Calif., is participating at full force – contributing up to $10,000 per veteran for an unlimited number of veterans. The $10,000 contribution covers about half William Jessup's annual tuition for traditional undergraduate students.

“We believe the VA is very much in error on this" -- in not providing any tuition benefit to California veterans at private colleges -- "so we don’t want to continue to punish the veteran any more. We are going to go ahead and step it up as an institution and make up that gap anyway,” said Korey Compaan, William Jessup’s director of financial aid.

Financially speaking, the move still makes sense for William Jessup, Compaan said. "From a net revenue perspective, if none of them come, the institution gets no money.... The reality is the student can come and if we pay half the cost and the veterans administration pays the other half of their tuition, then that’s a net tuition gain for the university regardless how many of them actually come,” Compaan explained, adding that William Jessup currently has extra capacity in its classrooms.

Plus, he said, echoing a common sentiment, it's the right thing to do. “We believe that veterans are worth every dollar that we can help them with.”

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