From Camp to Campus

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

To address retention concerns, the new GI Bill allows military personnel with more than six years of service to transfer their benefits to a spouse or children if they agree to serve an additional four years. (The Department of Defense said that was good enough for them, but they'll still keep an eye on troop levels.) To ease the transition, the VA was given a year to prepare and funding to hire hundreds of claims processors. To pay for all of this, the Obama administration's fiscal year 2010 budget is hiking VA funding by 15 percent, from $97.7 billion to $112.8 billion, with plans for an additional $25 billion over five years.

The VA posted on its website a chart of preliminary numbers to show what veterans in each state might get, come August 1. The goal was to help students plan their education, but it has also raised questions: For example, according to the VA's chart, a student in Guam can expect $173 per credit hour and $342 for fees, while a student in D.C. can expect $105 for tuition and $657 for fees. "D.C. gets less money than Guam—that's a problem," says Campbell, who doubts Guam is more expensive to live and go to school in than the nation's capital. The IAVA believes a national benefits standard would make things clearer and fairer than the state-by-state method. Also, Campbell says he's heard conflicting answers from the VA as to whether tuition money can be used to cover fees and vice versa.

"[The VA] can change the way they talk about these numbers," Campbell says, referring to the distinction made by the VA between tuition and fees. "They need to talk about them in a way veterans can understand."

It's also unclear how many private colleges will sign up for the "Yellow Ribbon" program so veterans can use their GI Bill benefits on those campuses. (The VA website has a preliminary list of schools that may or may not participate.)

Then there's the question of how the new GI Bill will fit with existing state programs. New York State, for example, provides Veterans Tuitions Awards of up to 98 percent of public school tuition or $4,287.50, whichever is less, for the SUNY and CUNY systems. But if the federal government will soon provide almost all tuition coverage, it appears there's an opportunity for cash-strapped states to save money.

"We expect that [use of state] benefits will go down if [veterans] use the new GI Bill," says Kathy Crowder, spokesperson for the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation. But it's still too early to tell how state and federal relations will shake out. "When the regulations are finalized, we will implement them accordingly. We haven't gotten the level of detail you're asking."

If state officials remain unsure of how the system will work, veterans have been left even more confused. Gomez, the CCNY student, isn't sure he could take advantage of the new bill because summer classes have drained most of his GI Bill eligibility—and if he could, he's not even sure how he'd apply.

"I don't think anyone knows," he says. "If anyone was going to receive information about this, it would be me. I've heard nothing."

As for the anticipated crush of students, Joseph Bello, assistant director of the Veterans Services Office at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, is afraid it's going to be a mess. Out of the gate, the VA plans to handle the new education claims with paper while an automated system is developed. Plus, given the current economy, Bello says, he knows many students are waiting for the new benefits to start before enrolling. "The math is too good," he says, meaning students want to take full advantage of the new benefits and not burn off months of eligibility under Montgomery.

"That money is a shining beacon for lots of them, so they can live and go to school without worrying where the rent is coming from or the next meal is coming from," Bello says.

Aarian Oliver, 34, is earning a post-baccalaureate degree at City College in a physician's assistant program after serving four years as an Army medic in Alaska. When the Florida native heard what was coming in the new GI Bill, he took out a loan to cover classes and books so as not to drain his benefits. He also rooms with his brother in Manhattan, works at the college library, and relies on support from his wife back in Florida to cover the rest. "It's a better deal when you look at the numbers," Oliver says. "It's going to pay for my classes, pay for my books, and pay me $2,500 [a month] to live in New York. The numbers speak for themselves."

Oliver, who's still an inactive reservist and is contemplating a career in the military, knows his path is not feasible for everybody. But he feels it's the best way for him to be ready come August. Will the VA be ready?

"The short answer is yes, the VA will be ready," says Keith Wilson, director of educational services for the VA. Beginning May 1, for example, the VA will start accepting paperwork to determine who's eligible. It's also hired an additional 530 claims processors, and training is under way.

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