Saturday, August 01, 2009

New GI Bill Launches

Many have called it the most substantial improvement to veterans' education benefits since World War II. Others see it as the nation making up for what it didn't do for those who returned with little thanks after serving in Vietnam. But whatever the sentiment, on August 1, more than a year and a half after it was introduced in the Senate, the "Post-9/11" GI Bill is going live. Featuring a generous housing stipend for vets-turned-students, tuition payments pegged to state university rates, and $1,000 per year for books and supplies, the new program should make college life a lot easier for most veterans. For active-duty troops - who may also use the benefit or even transfer it to a spouse - it offers uncapped tuition payments for any college or university - public or private. But some experts wonder if the Post-9/11 GI Bill is ready for prime time. "The vets right now are in a high state of anticipation," said R.K. Williams, veterans coordinator for Boise State University and president of the National Association of Veterans Programs Administrators. "I don't' want to say 'anxiety' because no one knows how it is going to work." While the new GI Bill is generally viewed as on the right track in terms of improving existing legislation, it isn't perfect, according to Williams and others. For example, the bill does not fund technical training or on-the-job training, and because it was designed with "bricks and mortar" schools in mind, it offers fewer benefits for those who desire online education programs. Tom Philpott, a benefits advisor for, said the GI Bill also does not recognize National Guardsmen called up by their states as qualified for the new benefits, only those called up by the president. By contrast, the previous program, the Montgomery GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill for Selected Reserve, is open to Guardsmen regardless of who or what activated them. "Frankly, I think there were a lot of little quirks in [the bill]," Philpott said. "It was rushed through. They were trying to get approval for a very complex program."But Philpott called the Post-9/11 GI Bill "a terrific program - a huge enhancement in veterans education benefits." "It's not what was offered to World War II veterans -- where you could go to any school in the country and have your full tuition, room and board paid for -- but it will be pretty close to that for a lot of folks," he said. Benefits experts have also expressed concern that those eligible for the new GI Bill will opt for it without fully thinking through their choice. Once a servicemember signs up for the Post-9/11 bill, he or she cannot switch back to the Montgomery GI Bill. Concern also exists around the fact that tuition coverage varies from state to state, topping out at the highest tuition cost of a state university, which could make it cost prohibitive for veterans to attend private colleges or universities. To help remedy this the VA created the "Yellow Ribbon" program, in which the VA will match funds if a school elects to waive up to fifty percent of the cost that exceeds a state's tuition rate. "That's something [veterans] really need to think about before they make their decision" on which GI Bill to use, said Williams. He also suggested that lawmakers might make adjustments to education benefits without having to go through the process of introducing an entirely new bill. "I hope that the technical changes they're making will modify the bill so it includes all areas of education, like distance learning and [on the job training]," he said. "I don't know if it was fully thought out by the lawmakers … they needed a little more time." Although the program officially starts on a Saturday, the VA's ceremony marking the launch won't be held until Monday, August 3, where Secretary Shinseki will be joined by President Obama, whose scheduled presence evinces the weight the administration places on the Post-9/11 GI BIll. Regardless of the details yet to be ironed out and the rough spots that might arise during the VA's initial execution, this landmark legislation has gained the interest of the latest generation of war veterans. Hundreds of thousands have applied for the program to date. And despite a backlog of more than 150,000 applications, the VA has said it will begin sending out the first round of payments next week.