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Improved Veteran Educational Benefits

written by Drew Peneton
on December 17, 2009

When I graduated with a four-year degree at the age of 26 — a degree I started working towards when I was 18 and fresh out of basic training, people asked me if it was nice to be debt-free. "Why would you think I am debt-free?" I would ask. Most of my friends and colleagues assumed that the military had paid for 100 percent of my college tuition, books and housing. When I told them just how inadequate my actual educational benefits really were, they would look like a child who's just found out there is no such thing as the Easter Bunny. Furthermore, many of my fellow veterans were so discouraged by the inadequate benefits that they dropped out of school or never attended — being in school would have meant schoolwork in addition to a full-time job, and less time for their family — and that was unrealistic for them. Other service members across the country were struggling to stay in school; many were forced to take out loans to start classes or waited months for reimbursement. Even though payments were made, the educational benefits for a veteran still only covered a fraction of the cost of a four-year public university.

As an Army National Guard infantryman, I spent 24 months deployed with active duty for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Both deployments required me to drop out in the middle of college terms. But it was my duty to deploy, and I was proud to serve my country regardless of the interruption to my education. When it was time to focus on school 100 percent, I was equally emphatic about my commitment.

The cost of my quarterly tuition, books and housing for a state university was approximately $2400. The National Guard benefits, according to the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), paid $1095 each quarter, with a total limit of $10,000. This amount barely covered my rent, and ran out very quickly. Even though the National Guard is technically considered a reserve military force, I had spent nearly two years on active duty, and had no change in educational benefits to reflect it. My active duty counterparts (those who technically serve full time in the military), many of whom had spent the same amount of time overseas as me, had a total benefit of $40,000.

Later, when I received a collection notice from the Department of Veterans Affairs, I became even more aware of the inadequacies the MGIB. I had been paid for less than 50 percent of my education a month at a time, even though my university required the full quarter of tuition upfront. The VA had also accidentally paid for two too many quarters, which sent me over my $10,000 limit, and the collection notice told me they wanted the overpaid balance back — within the next 90 days. With the remainder of my education expenses loan-funded, it was impossible to pay this money back so quickly; I was devastated. Over the course of my first year of full-time employment, I finally repaid this debt. Still, every time I sent off another check to the VA, I also worried for future veterans, whose educational benefits were constantly decreasing in value.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the original GI Bill in 1944. He described it as an "emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down." I had not only been let down, I had been given a debt by the VA — apparently no one felt that I, a National Guard member who had been deployed twice, had earned benefits comparable to those of full-time active duty soldiers. Until the summer of 2008, veterans like me faced a very different future from what FDR had made possible for previous generations. Since 1984, the inadequate MGIB, which was linked only to inflation, and not to the skyrocketing cost of college, had been losing value every year. It was this shortfall that led to 90 percent of veterans attending two-year colleges (instead of 4-year colleges), compared to the 38 percent of students in general who attend two-year colleges.

After a significant fight for better benefits, Congress passed the new "Post-9/11" GI Bill in the summer of 2008. This bill provides a stronger educational benefit that will dramatically improve the futures of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only will the GI Bill better reward our troops, every dollar spent on educational benefits under this more robust program is expected to add seven dollars to the national economy through productivity, consumer spending and tax revenue. The former Montgomery GI Bill had only realized a maximum economic gain of $2.54 per dollar spent.

Veterans can look forward to increased payment rates with the new and improved GI Bill: tuition will be paid in a lump sum directly to the school, and veterans will receive a monthly stipend for books. Veterans can also expect a stipend for living expenses, an extended deadline to use the funds and transferability of the benefits to family members. The tuition rate is calculated via the in-state school's tuition, and may limit the veteran's education options, but a relocation allowance is available for those who wish to explore their options. The payment rates are calculated on eight different payment levels, based on active duty service since September 11, 2001; the rates differ from state to state, and also depend the number of classes taken.

For now, administrative difficulties with handling the benefits of the new GI Bill have created a backlog of eligibility applications and an extended delay in benefit payments. This has created strain on veterans once again; many should have started receiving their educational payments over 10 weeks ago. The new benefits also maintain the disparity between reserve and active duty veterans, just as the previous GI Bill had. Despite these difficulties and problems, the Post 9/11 GI Bill is a great improvement: for most veterans, it is exponentially better than the current VA education programs.

Roosevelt understood the value of comprehensive reintegration tools when he signed the original GI Bill, ensuring that millions of veterans had a financial safety net as they transitioned back into civilian life. The new generation of combat veterans can take advantage of the new GI Bill, which promises to make college tuition affordable to every Iraq and Afghanistan veteran. As part of a solid investment in those who have earned the chance to readjust to civilian life by making college a full-time job, this country's next "Greatest Generation" can build a new future of American Leaders.

For more information on the Post 9/11 GI Bill, please visit www.gibill.va.gov.

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