Enhanced new GI education benefit hitting some rocks

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 3, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' top education official said Tuesday that veterans who hope to attend college next fall should be able to use new increased GI benefits to attend even high-cost private colleges.

Officials of independent colleges and universities — under heavy budget pressure from endowment losses and the recession — sounded worried, however. Many said that the VA was moving too slowly for veterans to know how much financial help they'd get before they decided which colleges to attend.

Increased benefits under the new so-called Yellow Ribbon program call for the VA and private colleges and universities to offer grants that cover the difference between the tuition and fees at a state's most expensive public-university and the same costs at a private institution. The VA and the private school split the added costs 50-50.

Participation by private institutions is voluntary, and they alone determine the number of Yellow Ribbon scholars they'll accept. To date, however, the VA hasn't told the institutions what the highest tuition in each state is, among other details.

Keith Wilson, the VA's director of education service, assured officials Tuesday at a Washington conference of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities that the VA is "moving as aggressively as possible" to fill in the financial blanks.

Nonetheless, Yellow Ribbon's list of participating universities and the aid they'll offer won't be made public until April 1, after most private college and university admissions decisions are made. Aid to qualified vets won't be available until Aug. 1, after many fall semester bills are due.

Late notices are likely to reduce participation, Wilson acknowledged, in part because colleges and universities won't know how much to budget for Yellow Ribbon scholars. Schools also are supposed to make grants to veterans on a first-come, first-served basis, which further handicaps those who need to know aid details before deciding which colleges or universities to attend.

James Wright, the president of Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., urged members of the association to support the program, even if the number of veterans who receive aid is minimal this year.

"Limit the numbers if you're apprehensive, instead of limiting your support," Wright said.

The Yellow Ribbon program is one aspect of the broader Post-9/11 GI Bill, which takes effect Aug. 1. Unlike the old GI Bill, whose educational benefit expired 10 years after service, the new bill is good for 15 years after the soldier's last active service date. Benefits can be passed to other members of the veteran's family after six to 10 years of service plus an additional four-year service commitment made after Aug. 1, 2009.

The new GI Bill includes a $1,000 annual grant for books and a monthly stipend for room and board equal to the military's housing allowance.

Some school officials wondered Tuesday where the new aid will come from, and whether it would take money away from need-based scholarships.

"We find ourselves in somewhat of a collision course as we're determining whether we can participate with those two conflicting policies," said Scott Fleming, an official at Georgetown University in Washington.

Veterans with three or more years of service after Sept. 10, 2001, are eligible for the grants. The idea was to enable veterans, with help from private schools and the VA, to attend any private colleges or universities to which they could gain admission.

ON THE WEB

The Department of Veterans Affairs GI Bill Web site

National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities' GI Bill information

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