GI Bill Math

At one Air Force base, soon-to-be veterans evaluate options of a program whose benefits are not uniform.
July 13, 2009

ANDREWS AFB -- Asked if she's heard much about the new, Post-9/11 GI Bill, Senior Airman Jessica Gage laughed. “I’ve heard lots of things.”

“A lot of what you hear is hearsay and that’s why I wanted to come to the briefing, to clear up some of the rumors, you could say.”

When it comes to potential users of the new GI Bill, which goes into effect in August, just about everybody has a question. And everybody’s is different.

“Post-9/11 is different for everybody. That’s why it’s so complicated,” said Terri Bedford, the guidance counselor at Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, where she's been giving a series of briefings on the GI Bill. “Chapter 30” – the existing Montgomery GI Bill -- “it was one size fits all. It was the same for everybody. Now this one, Post-9/11, it’s different for every person.”

"All the way from A1Cs" -- airmen first-class -- to "colonels, it's amazing. It affects everyone so differently."

Under the Montgomery GI Bill, the base educational benefit, paid directly to the veteran, is set at $1,321 per month, no matter where veterans attend college or what they study (a veteran could have participated in a “buy-up” to earn extra benefits, but by and large the benefit is a “cookie-cutter” one, as Bedford put it).

The value of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, though, is based on a multitude of variables. Most obviously, because the base tuition benefit is tied to the highest undergraduate resident tuition charged in a state, location matters – and in fact it really, really matters. The maximum tuition benefit payable ranges from $0 per credit hour in the case of California (a quirk of semantics since California's public colleges technically don’t charge tuition, but “fees,” or tuition by another name), to $71.50 per credit hour in Massachusetts, $558.08 per credit hour in Illinois, $970 per credit hour in New York, to a high of $1,333 per credit hour in New York. The maximum fees payable per term vary dramatically too, from $470 in Mississippi to a whopping $43,035 in Colorado (inflated due to an expensive aviation program).

The tuition and fee benefit is money that goes to the college under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, but a housing allowance will come directly to the veteran – and that will vary by location, too, based on the military’s housing allowance for a particular zip code.

But that’s just the beginning. It’s pretty straightforward if a veteran wants to attend an undergraduate public university program in-state – it will be paid for – but if he or she wants to attend a private college or a public college out-of-state, other variables kick in. Does the college participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, meaning has it entered into an agreement with the federal government to match a portion of the difference between the base benefit and the total tuition and fees charged? If the college is participating, at what level? What proportion of charges is the college pledging to cover – half the difference (with the VA covering the other half), or much less than that? How many students will the college make Yellow Ribbon payments for – two (in which case, will you be one of the two)? Or 200 or 20,000?

Other variables come into play too. For instance, if veterans are doing distance learning full-time, they don't get a housing allowance under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In these cases, and others, veterans are weighing whether the Post-9/11 GI Bill or Montgomery GI Bill will be a better deal for them. The Department of Veterans Affairs' Web site lists a whole range of factors veterans should consider in deciding which benefit to use. Among them: "Which benefit pays you more? What Post-9/11 GI Bill tier are you eligible for? Are you receiving other aid? Will entitlement to that aid change? What type of training will you pursue (i.e. bachelor’s degree, flight training, on-the-job, etc.)?"

“I’m telling them, ‘Do your math,' ” said Bedford. A total of 81 people signed in for her recent briefing on the GI Bill; the room had seats for 40, so she gave her talk twice. All the better to fill in so many people at once. "It actually takes an hour to brief someone on this."

"It is complex, but what I see is people hesitant to go to the [VA] Web site" and do their research, Bedford said.

“They can do this. It just takes time, and it takes effort on their part.”

Many people at Andrews are asking questions about their new ability to transfer GI Bill benefits to spouses and children. “I’ve been waiting for something like this," said Chaplain Maj. Richard Black. “It’s really a gift to my son," now age 9.

Tech. Sgt. Latasha Turner, meanwhile, separates from the Air Force August 10. She’s starting a program in dental hygiene at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, and will be using the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit as a Virginia resident to get tuition covered. “It’s new. I’m just trying to figure out the ins and outs of it,” she said.

Of course, other potential Post-9/11 GI Bill users are already enrolled in college. Derek Blumke, co-founder and president of Student Veterans of America (and a senior at the University of Michigan) worries that some veterans are making the irrevocable choice to switch from the Montgomery to Post-9/11 GI Bill program without really evaluating which is the better financial deal for them. “It’s such a case-by-case benefit; each individual has to do the math,” said Blumke, who described counseling a student last week who actually found that, because of his specific circumstances, the older Montgomery GI Bill program was worth an extra $20,000 to him.

The VA expects a 20 to 25 percent increase in GI Bill participation in the first year, said Keith Wilson, director of the VA’s education service. The projection is based on participation last year, plus estimates of a potential new pool of people who will be eligible through the transfer of benefits provision (intended as a retention incentive, service members who have spent six years in the military can transfer their GI Bill benefits to spouses and children if they commit to another four).

“It’s certainly new territory for us," Wilson said of the ability to transfer benefits. "Historically, nationally, we have no experience administering a program that is referred to as the GI Bill that has eligibility for such a large segment of people that are not veterans. We would expect it to change the nature of how the program is used, but we don’t have any good understanding at this point yet how that nature will change.”


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