From Camp to Campus

The new GI Bill promises to help more veterans afford college degrees—if anyone can figure out how it works

When Sergeant Don Gomez started attending City College in 2007, after five years in the U.S. Army and two tours in Iraq, he knew it would be a challenge to cover the cost of a college education as well as the high costs of living in New York City. So when he began his degree in International Studies, with a focus on the Middle East, he used the military's existing benefits—roughly $1,400 a month for tuition—and scholarships, and bunked with his parents.

The 27-year-old from Bellerose, Queens, knows he's lucky: When he graduates in May 2010, he'll be debt-free—plus, a $30,000 Truman scholarship will be paying for grad school. "I'm in a fortunate situation, and I think that my experience is exceptional," Gomez says. "Many veterans work full-time, are married with children, and also try to be full-time students."

These issues are what the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act—or the Post-9/11 GI Bill, for short—was designed to address. When it goes into effect this August, the bill will cover tuition and fees up to those charged at the most expensive public school in each state, as well as money for housing, books, and supplies. With five months to go, student veterans are gearing up to take advantage of the new benefits that will provide them with access to an education unseen since their grandfathers returned from World War II.

But Gomez, president of the City College Veterans Association, as well as other local vets, veterans groups, local colleges, and even the State of New York, expect growing pains out of the gate. Many vets are confused about how to apply for the benefits and even how much they may get—the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has yet to finalize the numbers. Some are delaying college applications until after the new benefits kick in; others are considering pausing their studies, or even taking out a loan, to take full advantage of them. 

"I know specific people that are doing it," says Gomez about student vets using a stop-gap measure to preserve their benefits. The military allots 36 months of education benefits, and months you use now cannot be regained under the new plan. "People in my position who got out a few years ago, do they want to stop using the GI Bill and take out a loan? Or do they keep going?"

The key provisions of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944—the original GI Bill—were not only education and job training benefits, but also loan guarantees for homes, farms, and businesses, plus unemployment pay. (This was a vast improvement over what returning vets from World War I got, which was little more than $60 and a train ticket home.) The thinking was that by helping veterans go to school and buy homes, it would not only provide them with advanced skills and a residence, but also avoid having them flood the postwar job market. According to the VA, by the time the original GI Bill expired in 1956, 7.8 million veterans had participated in the education and training programs and 2.4 million had taken advantage of the home loans. During its peak year, 1947, roughly half of the college population consisted of veterans.

In 1984, Congress passed the Montgomery GI Bill that provided 36 months of tuition payments to eligible veterans who were full-time students. To qualify, service personnel have to buy in—$1,200 in their first year of service—to receive roughly $1,321 per month for college. An additional $600 "buy-up" can get them another $150 per month.

The new benefits package going into effect this summer is a dramatic upgrade on the Montgomery GI Bill. There's no buy-in. Instead, full-time students with more than 36 months of active duty service can receive up to the maximum tuition and fees of the most expensive public college in their state, a $1,000 annual stipend for books and supplies, and a housing allowance pegged to the school's ZIP code. (Veterans with less service time are eligible for reduced benefits.) A City College student might expect up to $21,966 a year, according to a benefits calculator on the website for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a group that backed the bill. That student could also expect to get up to $970 per credit hour for tuition and up to $2,378.50 for fees, according to the VA's preliminary numbers for New York State. For Gomez, his monthly payment, now a little over $1,400, would jump to more than $2,500.

With the economic boost that the original GI Bill provided in mind, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), a Vietnam War veteran, had introduced the new GI Bill for Iraq and Afghanistan war vets as his first act in Congress in January 2007. It went nowhere. Veterans groups joined Webb to make the bill more politically feasible and to ensure that veterans could get to go to any public school for free.

"We developed consensus among veterans groups," says Patrick Campbell, congressional liaison for the New York City–based IAVA. "Getting all veterans groups to agree on anything is pretty momentous."

The new bill attracted wide bipartisan support, but President George W. Bush and GOP presidential candidate John McCain balked because they worried troops would leave in droves to take advantage of the generous benefits once their initial service commitments were up. Bush even threatened a veto. So the GI Bill backers attached it to a $162 billion supplemental bill to fund the wars (McCain skipped the vote), and Bush signed it. At the signing ceremony, Bush said, likely through teeth somewhat clenched, "We have a responsibility to provide for [veterans], so I'm pleased that the bill I signed today includes an expansion of the GI Bill."

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