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.

Rachel Harris

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."

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.

Those processors will be working in the back end of things until an automated system comes online this fall. But vets won't even notice the change, the VA promises. They'll apply for the new benefits the same way they applied for the old ones—at gibill.va.gov. "That process won't change," Wilson says. "The only change is in the internal processes the VA uses."

The VA hopes to issue the final state tuition numbers soon—a scheme "way more complex than what we've had in the past," Wilson says—and plans to send out two GI Bill–related direct mailings, the first to qualified veterans and the second to active duty personnel. Wilson expects more than 2 million vets will receive a mailing. The agency is also working with private corporations to help get the word out. Anyone still confused can contact the VA's national call center (888-GI-BILL-1).The IAVA has also set up a website where veterans can get answers: gibill2008.org.

CUNY, which has 1,700 veteran students, is also gearing up for August. "We're having a lot of interaction with [veteran students]," says Wilfred Cotto, director of veterans' affairs at CUNY. For example, a session at the second annual CUNY Student Veterans Conference, to be held in April at Medgar Evers College, will be devoted entirely to the new benefits. CUNY is trying to be proactive, Cotto says. "We understand that there are going to be questions."

Some veterans are optimistic that over the next five months, questions will get answered and preparations will be made to ensure the changeover goes smoothly.

"We're talking about 400,000 people," says the IAVA's Campbell about the number of veterans who may take advantage of the new GI Bill. "In World War II, they were able to do it for 4 million people."

Gomez, though, is more wary: "We'd all like a smooth transition," he says. "But I'm not expecting it. I'm expecting it to struggle when it starts."l

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