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USMC investigates GI Bill anomaly

Aug. 19, 2012 - 11:41AM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 19, 2012 - 11:41AM  |  
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The Marine Corps is examining how its two boot camps inform recruits about their GI Bill education benefits. The move was prompted when officials realized that so far this year, nearly all West Coast recruits have elected to buy into the Montgomery GI Bill, while the vast majority of East Coast recruits have enrolled in the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is more generous than its predecessor and includes no buy-in fees.

To date, more than 4,000 of the 6,346 recruits attending training this year at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., have selected the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a break from 2011 and 2010, when virtually everyone who went to boot camp there elected the Montgomery GI Bill. That program requires a $100 monthly buy-in for one year. Meanwhile, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, only four recruits out of 6,001 have elected the Post-9/11 GI Bill this year. That's consistent with 2011 and 2010.

Training and Education Command, which oversees the recruit depots, has directed officials at Parris Island to "look into what contributed to the change in numbers," said Col. Sean Gibson, spokesman for TECOM in Quantico, Va.

"Based on that information, … we will determine whether there is a better way to present the options for GI Bill election to new recruits in order to ensure they can make the best-informed choice," Gibson said.

The cause of the discrepancy is unknown, though according to Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, an operations officer from Manpower Information Systems Support Activity in Indianapolis noticed the trend at Parris Island in June. Marine Corps Times was made aware of it in July, when a Marine contacted the newspaper with questions about how each boot camp informs Marines about their benefits.

Comparing plans

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is far more generous than the Montgomery GI Bill. The new program covers the full cost of tuition and fees at all public schools and most private schools, while the older program places a cap on benefits currently $1,473 per month. The new GI Bill also provides a monthly housing stipend and an annual textbook allowance. The Montgomery GI Bill has neither.

Another key difference between the two education programs is the Montgomery GI Bill's $1,200 buy-in fee, paid at a rate of $100 per month over a service member's first year in uniform.

Revisions made last year to the Post-9/11 program cleared the way for coverage of vocational and technical training and correspondence courses, types of schooling that previously were covered only under the Montgomery GI Bill.

Another highly popular distinction between the two programs is that service members can share Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits with spouses and children something unprecedented in the annals of military education benefits.

In the Corps, briefings conducted for recruits at both depots combine information on each program, Gibson said. There are not separate classes specific to each, and recruits are automatically enrolled in the Montgomery program unless they specifically decline it by the 14-day mark of recruit training.

Both depots are compliant in ensuring that requirement is met, Gibson said. However, the delivery and timing of the briefings is not standardized at Parris Island and San Diego.

At San Diego, for instance, an initial briefing on the GI Bill is conducted by the Recruit Admin Branch during recruits' in-processing. The individual who conducts the brief may be military or civilian, Gibson said. Recruits are provided "brief descriptions" of both programs "with respect to eligibility, benefits and actions required," he said.

On training day 14, the Recruit Admin Branch at San Diego provides a one-hour class that outlines the specific elements of each GI Bill program. Recruits are then required to make a decision to either participate in or decline the Montgomery GI Bill. For those who elect the Montgomery plan, payroll deductions begin within 30 days.

Then, on training day 52, an additional class is held to review other education benefits available to active-duty military personnel, including tuition assistance and additional aspects of the GI Bill.

The process at Parris Island is considerably different.

Recruits who go to boot camp there are briefed by a uniformed Marine within 48 hours of arrival, Gibson said. They are provided a benefit-comparison chart, afforded time for review and then told to make their GI Bill selection. There's no second session on day 14, but there is an additional education-benefits brief offered on day 56 or 57, Gibson said.

TECOM provided Marines Corps Times with a copy of the 18-page PowerPoint slideshow presented to recruits during the briefings at both depots. It focuses heavily on the Montgomery GI Bill, mentioning the Post-9/11 GI Bill for the first time on Slide 15. The slideshow advises recruits to choose the Montgomery GI Bill if they anticipate they will incur high tuition expenses.

This setup makes little sense to retired Coast Guard Capt. Bud Schneeweis, the director of the Benefits Information and Financial Education Department at the Military Officers Association of America, an advocacy group.

"I can't understand why they would say that," he said. "I don't see what that rationale is. … The Post-9/11 GI Bill is so much more powerful … I suspect it's going to put the MGIB out of business before much longer."

If a recruit elects to buy into the Montgomery plan, he can utilize either program down the line, the Corps' PowerPoint states. But a decision to turn down the Montgomery plan's benefits is irrevocable. Similarly, once a recruit decides to contribute to the Montgomery plan, payment cannot be stopped.

But if individuals decide later in their careers to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill instead of the Montgomery GI Bill, they are eligible for a proportional monetary refund. If you use two years' worth, you get $600 back. If you use none, you get all $1,200 refunded.

The Post-9/11 GI bill is widely considered one of the best benefits available to service members primarily because it requires no buy-in and fully covers the cost of tuition and fees at public schools and up to $17,500 for private institutions, an amount scheduled to grow to $18,000, according to the Veterans Affairs Department website. In the four years since it took effect, 745,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans or their dependents have used the program.

But the Montgomery program has its benefits, despite being older.

"For some individuals, it's a better program … in a rural area, particularly if someone has a scholarship, if their tuition and fees are being paid, the MGIB … may be healthier than the living stipend for the Post-9/11 GI Bill," said a Pentagon personnel official who spoke to Marine Corps Times on background.

Automatic enrollment was traditionally used as a way to safeguard future education options for service members. It was intended to keep options open later in an individual's career, even if he or she didn't intend to use tuition assistance when first joining the military.

"I certainly see why those guidelines were put in place," Schneeweis said. "There are so many young service members who might not have taken advantage of the opportunities they had under the MGIB by not participating, making a shortsighted decision in order to save themselves some spending money. They could have jeopardized a significant benefit in their future. … But I believe [automatic enrollment] should be reconsidered in the wake of the Post-9/11 GI Bill."

What's next

The discrepancies between San Diego and Parris Island also raise concerns about the 14-day window recruits are given to make their selections. The first two weeks at basic training can be overwhelming and exhausting because of the physical and psychological demands. That sets up young men and women for making an important decision in an environment where "you're looking at surviving, not planning your future," he said.

The law says recruits must be given an opportunity to make their election at the time they enter active duty. Defense Department policy provides a two-week timeframe, but officials "would consider a service's request to extend the timeline, provided the request falls within the time frame as described in law," said Eileen Lainez, a DoD spokeswoman.

Marine Corps Times contacted Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the former Marine and Navy secretary who authored the Post-9/11 GI Bill. His office declined to comment.

Heretofore, TECOM has not conducted specific reviews of how recruits are informed about their education benefits, Gibson said. However, "unscheduled reviews and changes to training occur when regulations, requirements, standards, content or methodology is directed or necessary for any aspect of recruit training," he said.

It's not immediately clear when officials at Parris Island must report their findings to TECOM, or what specifically they will review during the process. MCRD San Diego has not been directed to review its methods for informing recruits about GI Bill options, Gibson said, but officials there will be part of a discussion about any future changes. A course-curriculum review board is scheduled to convene in September and review the entire program of instruction for recruit training, Gibson said.

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