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Post-9/11 GI Bill turns 5

Aug. 4, 2014 - 02:34PM   |  
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Post-9/11 GI Bill by the Numbers

Users: More than 1.2 million
Growth: 34,393 users in 2009; 779,569 users in 2013
Benefits paid: More than $42 billion
Sources: Defense and Veterans Affairs departments

Seventy years ago, the original GI Bill provided a bridge to the middle class for veterans returning from war who may have otherwise found limited opportunity in the civilian world.

Five years into the Post-9/11 GI Bill era, this newest incarnation has done much the same, veterans education officials said.

But serious challenges may lie ahead for the highly popular program.

“Protecting the benefit is an increasingly important piece of the puzzle,” said Matt Randle, interim chief of staff for Student Veterans of America. “If we cannot demonstrate [the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s value] to the lawmakers of this country — and ultimately to the taxpayers of this country — then I think that it can and may well become part of the discussion in a budget-conscious Congress.”

Most veterans have two GI Bill benefits to choose from: Post-9/11 and the Montgomery GI Bill.

Their preference is clear — last year, nearly eight times as many vets used Post-9/11, compared to Montgomery.

Except in particular, rare cases, Post-9/11 is the more generous benefit by far. It covers the full cost of in-state tuition at all public colleges and universities or up to $19,198 at private schools in the 2013-14 school year.

It also provides a housing stipend, which varies by school location and is based on the Basic Allowance for Housing offered to an E-5 paygrade with dependents. Post-9/11 beneficiaries also receive a stipend of up to $1,000 per year for books and supplies, depending on course load.

And all these benefits can be transferred by the vet to a spouse or child, under certain conditions.

Montgomery cannot be transferred, offers no stipend and covered no more than $1,648 per month for college costs in 2013-14, though under some circumstances, vets can pocket the difference when tuition falls below the $1,648 level.

The money that Post-9/11 typically provides has attracted the attention of many student veterans — as well as schools and skeptical public officials.

Such officials have focused on for-profit schools, charging that some take advantage of student vets, sucking up their benefits while offering little in return. For-profit school representatives and even veterans service organizations have pushed back on that characterization, saying there are good and bad schools of all types, whether for-profit, private or public.

Still, talk of schools squandering Post-9/11 benefits continues and could lead to doubts about whether the cost is worthwhile.

“In order to preserve the benefit, we need to be able to show policymakers that student veterans are succeeding in higher ed,” said Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars.

But that can be difficult. Veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill often come to school with transfer credit and sometimes attend part time, due to career or family obligations. Such students cannot be counted in the traditional student success measures established by the Education Department.

In March, SVA released a study attempting to track vet graduation rates. But the study relied on a sample of students dramatically different from the typical veteran population and used an inconsistent method to determine success, casting doubt on the results.

Curtis Coy, a VA deputy undersecretary, said this lack of outcome data can hurt vet students trying to decide on a school.

“You get 36 months of benefits. It doesn’t leave you much room for error,” Coy said, adding that VA is working to figure out methods to measure the success of student veterans at particular schools.

For its part, SVA last month rolled out a “Not Recommended” schools list, to warn vets away from institutions that it believes could squander their benefits.

Perhaps the other biggest concern related to the Post-9/11 GI Bill was addressed just last week, as part of a comprehensive veterans reform bill passed by Congress. One provision requires public universities to offer in-state tuition rates to all Post-9/11 beneficiaries, thus eliminating a tuition gap that vets sometimes had to make up themselves when their military service prevented them from establishing residency in a particular state.

“That was a huge push for us,” Randle said.

Still, Randle expressed some concern about the future of the overall benefit, noting that if Congress lets the Post-9/11 GI Bill continue as is, without scaling it down, it “would be the first” GI Bill to receive such hands-off treatment.

Coy said he wishes he had “a good crystal ball” to divine what changes Congress may make to the benefit in the future. But whatever may happen, he said, the benefit is a great investment for the country, and Congress is likely to want to ensure vets have such a bridge to civilian success.

“This Post-9/11 GI Bill will spawn the next ‘greatest generation,’ ” Coy said. “I would suggest that the American people believe that this is a benefit that has been richly earned by veterans.”

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