Congress finalized plans to grant Veterans Affairs officials emergency authorities over education benefits in the event of a future pandemic or national crisis, to ensure student veterans’ classes won’t be disrupted.
House lawmakers introduced the proposal last summer in recognition of “gaps” that appeared in GI Bill benefits at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in America in spring 2020. The measure was approved by the Senate on Dec. 20 and finalized by the House on Dec. 22.
The main issue is how VA education benefits are paid out to students who attend college classes remotely, rather than in-person.
Students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill — the most popular veterans education benefit — receive money for tuition as well as a monthly housing stipend. Individuals enrolled in traditional in-person classes receive the full financial benefit, while students in online-only classes are granted just half of that housing stipend.
The difference between half of a housing stipend and the full payout can range from a few hundred dollars to nearly $2,000, since the payouts depend on the location of the student and school.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced colleges to shift courses from physical classrooms to internet meeting rooms in spring 2020, nearly all students were reclassified as online-only, triggering a reduction in their housing benefits.
That prompted a flurry of legislative activity, with lawmakers including new authorities for the VA secretary in a series of emergency pandemic bills.
They included the ability to adjust housing payouts, work-study programs and other facets of the education benefits. VA officials credited them with preventing hardship for more than 60,000 students over the last few years.
But those authorities expired last June, after most colleges and universities had resumed normal operations.
The new bill allows for similar moves by VA officials in the future “if an individual is negatively affected by an emergency situation.”
Such a move would require a declaration by the president that the country faces a national emergency, or a similar legal determination.
Veterans groups have voiced support for the measure as a way to ensure VA officials can more quickly help students and their families in the future. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the measure into law in coming days.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.