New GI bill gives full ride to local service men and women

Many Beaufort Marines and sailors hope new military education benefits can do for them what the GI Bill did for "The Greatest Generation."

Signed into law in June 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect Aug. 1 and applies to service members who have served at least 90 days on active duty since Sept. 10, 2001. They can receive free tuition, a yearly book- and school-supply stipend and a monthly housing allowance, based on their length of service.

For those with three or more years of active-duty service, the law covers the tuition and fees for an undergraduate education at the most expensive public four-year university or college in their home state. In South Carolina, that means that veterans could receive up to $8,838 a year for tuition, the approximate cost of one year of undergraduate education at the University of South Carolina, the state's most expensive public school. The same amount can be applied to private schools.

For active-duty Marines and sailors, the bill means a free four-year college education, $1,000 a year for books and school supplies, and a housing allowance that depends upon the school.

Cpl. Claraece Cutsinger, 23, a career planning clerk at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, said the housing allowance will allow her to focus on her education when she returns to her home state of Oklahoma this year at the end of her four-year stint in the Corps.

"I can get (the housing allowance) and not have to worry about having a full-time job," said Cutsinger, who plans to attend the University of Oklahoma to study criminal justice. "It's hard to complete a degree in your first enlistment. Your job comes first."

Transferable benefits

David Ellard, who handles education services for Marine Corps Community Services at the air station and at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, said the benefit can be transferred to one's spouse or children as long as the service member stays in the service.

Such a benefit could help the Corps' retention efforts.

"With the current economy and unemployment where it is, the bill could help keep people in to take advantage of the transferability," he said. "They might stay in longer because you have to stay in to be able to transfer those benefits."

But the bill could also lead to more people leaving the service.

"Those that get out after four years to go to college, that was probably their plan when they joined the Marine Corps, and these new benefits make that option that much more appealing to them," he said.

Veterans are eligible for GI bill benefits for 15 years after active duty.

A long backlog

Scheduled to pay out about $78 billion over the next decade, the program recognizes the sacrifices made by the country's newest veterans, said Dennis Cullinan, the national legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"This bill is a landmark accomplishment," Cullinan said. "It's the most significant increase in military education benefits since the original GI bill after World War II. It does the right thing by the men and women who've served our nation. The bill helps them attend colleges and universities that they wouldn't be able to afford otherwise."

But a line is forming for the benefits.

Nextgov, a journal that covers information technology in government, reported earlier this month that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had a backlog of 191,388 education benefits claims as of Aug. 10. That's a 10 percent increase from the previous week. It could mean some eligible veterans won't receive the money they need to pay their housing and tuition bills on time.

The Technical College of the Lowcountry is making concessions for the more than 80 eligible veterans enrolled at its Beaufort and greater Bluffton campuses, said Cleo Martin, the school's director of enrollment and financial aid services; 25 people are still awaiting letters of eligibility from the VA.

Attempts to reach Pat Greene, director of financial aid at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, for comment were unsuccessful.

Education benefits claims under the new GI bill typically take 30 days to process, according to the Nextgov report.