Not your grandfather’s GI Bill

For more than half a century, the GI Bill has helped send millions of American veterans into the workforce armed with a first-rate education. But recent changes to the law are threatening to make it harder and more expensive for veterans returning from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to benefit the same way their predecessors once did.

The GI Bill, passed in the 1940s, aimed to help returning World War II veterans reintegrate into society by providing benefits such as tuition payments and low-interest loans. In 2010, Congress amended the law, reducing the education benefits offered to some veteran students attending public universities.

Under the new bill, referred to as GI Bill 2.0, tuition fees at a public institution are covered only up to the highest tuition cost state residents pay. If the student veteran is considered a non-resident, they are responsible for paying the difference, which can run into tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Conversely, a veteran who chooses to attend a private college is eligible to receive up to $17,500 per year. This means that veterans who enrol in private institutions are sometimes eligible for more benefits than veterans who enrol at public colleges.

“As a direct result of this change in law, thousands of student veterans, and prospective student veterans alike, face the never-before-seen issue of in-state residency for tuition purposes,” said Jason Thigpen, founder and president of the Students Veterans Advocacy Group (SVAG), a non-profit organisation that pushes for educational rights for students who are ex-service members.

According to figures from SVAG, more than 250,000 veterans nationwide are being forced to pay $10,000 or more per academic year as a result of the recent changes.

Under the new law, the nomadic nature of military service counts against veterans, said Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the National Economic Division at the American Legion, a veteran advocacy group.

“In the military, you move around so much, you never have adequate time to set root in a state,” said Gonzalez, a former Marine. “When you leave the military, you’re part of a nation, not part of a state.”

Gonzalez, who served in the US Marine Corps for eight years, experienced first-hand the drawbacks of the new law. A New York native, he was stationed in North Carolina for much of his service.

When he recently retired, he hoped to study at a college in the state. But he was told he would have to pay out-of-state tuition fees, even though he had called North Carolina home for many years. To qualify for reduced tuition, he was forced to jump through hoops to establish in-state residency.

Gonzalez persevered, but it’s likely many ex-service members will choose not to attend college when faced with such high tuition fee costs, he said. The new law may also affect a veteran’s choice of study area.

A veteran may have a certain skill-set, such as maths, that he or she acquired while stationed abroad. However, the veteran may not be from a state that offers the best training for that particular skill-set. This could lead to the veteran choosing not to attend college at all, or he or she may choose to study something else based purely on cost.

“We are not allowing veterans to succeed in the areas they feel that they can,” Gonzalez said.
University study helps veterans as they embark on the challenging journey of reintegrating into society.

“Higher education is a vehicle that allows for veterans to feel empowered and continue their service to their country,” Gonzalez said. “It helps them readjust to civilian society.”

Educated veterans also boost the economy, said Thigpen. Those with college educations tend to have a significantly lower unemployment rate than those with only a high school degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“While the economy is tough, statistics prove that taking care of our veterans through the benefits promised to them yields one of the highest return on investment of any others out there, period,” he said.

A number of veteran advocacy groups, including the American Legion and SVAG, are currently working on addressing the issue.

SVAG is pushing for adoption of the Veterans Education Equity Act, which would make all veterans eligible to receive up to $17,500 in education benefits each year, regardless of where they decide to study. The bill never made it out of the subcommittee hearings, but Thigpen plans to reintroduce it this year.

For ex-service members like Thigpen and Gonzalez, providing education benefits to veterans is a moral issue.

“Our veterans should never have to ask, and sometimes beg, for the very things we were promised for the sacrifices made to protect our great nation,” Thigpen said.