Education benefits are constantly changing. Understanding the latest is key in making the most of this earned opportunity.
Because of education benefit improvements included in the Veterans Choice Act of 2014, recent veterans transitioning from combat to the classroom no longer will encounter a potential financial booby-trap when using their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
Beginning on July 1, 2015, public colleges and universities that want to remain eligible for Post-9/11 and Montgomery GI Bill funding will be required to offer in-state tuition to veterans (and eligible spouses/dependents) who enroll less than three years after discharge from the military.
Such a change has been long sought by veterans organizations who argued that strict interpretations of in-state residency requirements meant many student-veterans were being unfairly saddled with double-digit tuition bills when they enrolled in public schools and were labeled as out-of-state students.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33) pays the full amount of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges and universities and up to $20,235 at private or foreign schools for the 2014-2015 academic year. Benefits are tiered based on length of service, with activated National Guard and Reserve members earning the same benefits as other active duty members. To be eligible at the 100-percent rate, individuals must have honorably served at least 36 months on active duty since Sept. 10, 2001, or be honorably discharged from active duty for a service-connected disability after serving 30 continuous days following Sept. 10, 2001.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill also includes a monthly housing allowance and a maximum $1,000 book and supply stipend. Service members interested in vocational training opportunities can use the Post-9/11 GI Bill for on-the-job, apprenticeship training and flight programs as well as distance education. As a retention incentive, service members who serve a minimum of six years on active duty and agree to re-enlist for an additional four years may transfer benefits to their spouse or children.
Ryan Tomlinson, education coordinator at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), believes this latest improvement to the Post-9/11 GI Bill will eliminate the roadblocks some veterans experienced when attempting to use their education benefits.
“We’re basically allowing veterans to go to the school of their choice,” he says. “It also opens it up so more veterans will want to attend state schools instead of being forced to go to for-profit [institutions]. It allows more access to land grant institutions.”
While 26 states have state laws providing a residency exemption to student veterans for in-state tuition, states such as California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia do not. Veterans not meeting residency requirements in those states faced potentially large shortfalls when attending public universities. The University of North Carolina, for example, charges in-state students $8,374 in tuition and fees, while nonresident students receive a $33,624 tuition bill.
Steve Gonzalez, assistant director for the American Legion Veterans Employment & Education Division, says the American Legion and other veterans groups fought a “two-pronged war,” working at both the state and federal level to change residency rules for veterans, because some states with large military populations dragged their feet on the residency issue.
“If an individual was stationed at Camp Lejeune (North Carolina) for 10 years, two years or five years and they transitioned out of the military, they were no longer protected under the Higher Education Act and were considered out-of-state residents and would be charged out-of-state residency costs at public institutions,” Gonzalez says.
The Yellow Ribbon Program (YRP), a voluntary program that allows colleges and universities to enter into an agreement with the Veterans Administration (VA) to fund tuition and fee expenses that exceed Post-9/11 GI Bill payment amounts, applies only to veterans (and their eligible dependents) who served at least 36 months after Sept. 10, 2001. While more than 1,200 institutions of higher learning participate in the program, schools often cap the number of students who can receive YRP scholarships and limit the participating degree programs.
In addition to ushering in-state tuition eligibility for veterans, the Choice Act also extends to surviving spouses the educational benefits provided by the Gunnery Sgt. John D Fry Scholarship. Established in 2009, Fry Scholarships, which provide benefits mirroring the Post-9/11 GI Bill, have been awarded to surviving dependent children of those who died in the line of duty since Sept. 10, 2001. The benefits may be used until age 33.
Offering the Fry Scholarship to surviving spouses marks a significant change in their education benefits since previously they were entitled to benefits only under Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA/Chapter 35), a program that pays students a maximum rate of $1,003 monthly for up to 48 months.
While the Choice Act ushered in another round of improvements to veteran education benefits, Tomlinson says IAVA is not done lobbying Congress for changes. The organization’s next push will be to allow all medically discharged veterans with service-related disabilities to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to family members.
“We have service-connected disability veterans being forced out medically who cannot reenlist and, therefore, cannot transfer benefits to family members,” Tomlinson said. “Some of them have TBIs (traumatic brain injuries), where they cannot take advantage of the education benefit so why should their service and their benefits be lost? It would be great to allow their spouse or their child to go to school.”
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most popular education for today’s military, with more than 1.1 million veterans, Reservists, National Guard, active duty service members and eligible family members accessing the program during the past six years. However, service members can leverage other programs as well:
- Montgomery GI Bill (Chapter 30) Active Duty provides up to 36 months (four school years) of assistance to eligible service members and veterans for college, technical training, distance learning, apprenticeships/on-the-job training and flight training. Benefits expire 10 years after leaving active duty.
- Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve provides up to 36 months of education and training benefits to eligible members of the Selected Reserve, including the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve and Coast Guard Reserve, and the Army National Guard and Air National Guard. To qualify, Reservists must complete their initial active duty training and have a six-year obligation in the Selected Reserve. Officers must agree to serve six yeas in addition to their original obligation.
- Tuition Assistance (TA) for active duty service members pays up to 100 percent of tuition and fees, not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour or $4,500 per fiscal year, for up to 16 TA-funded courses. Each service branch determines eligibility criteria.
- Tuition Assistance Top-Up supplements other tuition assistance programs for those active and Reserve service members eligible to use Chapter 30 MGIB-active duty benefits.The VA has updated its GI Bill Comparison Tool, creating a benefits calculator that offers expanded information on student-veteran related metrics as well as non-veteran specific data on graduation rates, loan default rates and borrowing. The tool can be found at: www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/comparison.
While the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which administers the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, experienced difficulties early on when processing applications, claims and benefit-transfer requests, those issues generally have been overcome. This past year, for example, the VBA decreased the time it takes to process requests for GI Bill benefits for returning students by nearly 50 percent compared to fiscal year 2012.
“With the VA’s implementation of the new eBenefits system (www.ebenefits.va.gov) veterans can apply and know their eligibility within three to five business days when it used to take months,” Tomlinson says. “When I went through in 2009, I had to mail-deliver everything and wait a couple of months to hear back from the VA. Now it takes a few days.”
Nonetheless, veterans groups plan to vigilantly keep watch over all aspects of veterans’ access to higher education.