Retooling the GI Bill

WASHINGTON – Gathered at a hearing here Wednesday, U.S. senators grappled with legislation that would attempt to simplify the often dizzying formula for calculating veterans benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. But proposed legislation to streamline the process could wind up reducing benefits for some of those attending private colleges, higher education leaders argue.

July 22, 2010

WASHINGTON – Gathered at a hearing here Wednesday, U.S. senators grappled with legislation that would attempt to simplify the often dizzying formula for calculating veterans benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. But proposed legislation to streamline the process could wind up reducing benefits for some of those attending private colleges, higher education leaders argue.

At issue for the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is S. 3447, legislation that would revamp the benefit formula that has been in place since the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect last year. While the proposed bill would make few changes for the funding of undergraduate education at public institutions, it would establish a new national cap on benefits for private colleges -- both for-profit and non-profit. Rather than base the maximum benefit on the highest tuition of any public program in a given state, the new cap would be derived from the average tuition and fees of all private and public baccalaureate programs across the nation. That baseline would be around $12,000, meaning veterans at private colleges would receive less funding in almost half of states, according to the American Council on Education.

“In the process of [changing the formula], you could significantly reduce the amount of money some veterans would have available,” Terry W. Hartle, ACE’s senior vice president for the division of government and public affairs, said in an interview after the hearing.

ACE, however, supports the underlying concept of setting a national standard for benefits. In its current form, the GI Bill pays wildly different base benefits toward private education based on the state where a veteran enrolls. In New York, for instance, the quasi-public Cornell University is used in the public tuition calculation, bringing the maximum per-credit hour charge above $1,000 – more than twice that of nearby New Jersey.

Erasing inequities between states has been a key goal for a number of groups, including Student Veterans for America.

“We do not want veterans to leave their chosen state so they can afford school,” Brian Hawthorne, a spokesman for the group, told Inside Higher Ed. “We hate to use this term, but we want everybody to be 'worth' the same. This is an earned benefit. No one is worth more than anybody else.”

While the language is still being hammered out, the legislation in its final form is likely to cover all tuition and fees for undergraduate, graduate or professional programs at any public institution. The proposed bill currently states that it would cover “established charges” for any public college program, but lawmakers seem to have no objection to changing the wording to “tuition and fees” to avoid ambiguity.

The establishment of a nationwide baseline benefit for veterans attending private colleges has widespread appeal because it would create equitable benefits, but veterans groups are pushing for a higher number -- some say $20,000. Another option would be to develop an average based only on the tuition at private institutions, which would avoid deflating the number based on low-tuition public colleges throughout the country, Hartle said.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill already has a mechanism for covering gaps between the cost of private education and the base benefits available, but it requires private colleges to chip in, too. Under the Yellow Ribbon Program, colleges can enter into dollar-for-dollar matching agreements with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Given that, “the veteran still has the potential of being covered in full, regardless of where they attend,” said Keith Wilson, director of education service at the VA.

While that may be true, some college administrators say they worry about a potentially greater cost burden being shifted toward private colleges in states where benefits could decrease under the new formula.

“I don’t have any take on that [criticism],” Wilson said.

Others do have a take, however, including Faith DesLauriers, director of University Veterans Affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a private institution with campuses worldwide.

“Now you’re saying you’ll pay the absolute highest cost there is for public schools, but private schools are going to be based on the national average. That just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “You’re saying that you’re going to do all this great stuff for people who serve [their] country, but now they’re telling you you’re limited to a public institution.”

Embry-Riddle participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program at the maximum rate, providing scholarships equal to 50 percent of the unmet tuition charges for all eligible students. But only veterans who have served 36 months in active duty after Sept. 11, 2001 are eligible for the program, and DesLauriers said that leaves a substantial number of students without the gap-covering assistance the program provides.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities also urged lawmakers Wednesday to tread carefully in developing a new benefits formula.

"The reason behind the drive to adopt a national number has merit, in that it would reduce the confusion that many vets now face in considering a private school option," Susan Hattan, a senior consultant at NAICU, said in a written statement. "The key thing is to set the national tuition and fees figure at an appropriate level. In the process of opening up greater opportunity for students in states that now have benefits far below average, it is critical that every effort be made to minimize the financial impact on students elsewhere."

In addition to grappling with the thorny issue of calculating benefits, the legislation also attempts to cover more veterans by extending benefits to more members of the National Guard and Active Guard Reserve, about 30,000 of whom were not covered by the original law. The current Post-9/11 GI Bill covers members of the Guard who have served in federal Title 10 status, but not those on state active duty or Title 32. The new legislation would extend benefits to state Guard duty.

The bill would also extend housing allowances to students taking courses purely online. While the current GI Bill provides no allowance to students taking only distance education courses, the legislation would provide those students with 50 percent of the allowance given to residential students.

While the housing allowance is a form of progress, it still doesn't sit well with some administrators whose colleges have robust distance learning programs and significant veteran enrollments. Russell S. Kitcher, associate vice president for regulatory and government relations at American Public University System, was critical of the "discrimination" inherent in the housing allowance.

"Providing some form of a housing stipend for individuals taking courses online certainly is a step in the correct direction, but I remain unconvinced that there should be any discrimination based on learning modes," Kitcher wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. "Online students, the majority of whom are adult learners, have comparable living expenses as do those taking courses at traditional brick and mortar institutions, and to suggest otherwise is to overlook the realities of contemporary learners."


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