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Post-9/11 GI Bill reform: Stipends pared to help more vets

Veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill will see their monthly living stipends stopped between fall and winter semesters starting next year, and only full-time students will continue to draw stipends at the 100 percent rate.

Those two cost-saving changes, plus a new $17,500 nationwide cap on Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for students attending private colleges and universities, freed up enough program dollars for Congress to expand new GI Bill eligibility and improve other features, all to take effect by fall.

So say lawmakers and congressional staff members who negotiated final details of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010. Congress passed the bill, S 3447, before Christmas. President Barack Obama will sign it into law at a White House ceremony this month.

Here is part of what was gained by streamlining the use of the stipend and imposing the new tuition cap for all private college degree programs:

  • Expanded coverage: Post-9/11 GI benefits no longer will be limited to those pursuing a college degree. Veterans will be able to use their benefits to gain skills through on-the-job training, apprenticeships, vocational-technical schools and other non-degree-granting institutions.
  • More Guard members elligible: Correcting an oversight of the 2008 GI Bill law, National Guard members soon will quality for the new GI Bill if activated for sufficient length of time since Sept. 11, 2001, under Title 32 for domestic emergencies or homeland security missions. Also qualifying will be full-time service under the Active Guard and Reserve program.
  • Complexity reduced: New GI Bill benefits used at public colleges and universities will continue to cover full tuition and fees. But the variance in entitlements for attending private colleges will end through use of a $17,500 benefit cap, to be adjusted annually based on the nationwide rise in education costs. The cap will replace different ceilings in every state based on tuition and fees at its most expensive degree-granting public college.
  • Book stipends: Active duty members and spouses attending college will be eligible for the new GI Bill book stipend, up to $1,000 a year.
  • Online students: Students exclusively taking classes online will receive a living stipend equal to half of the average housing allowance stipend paid to resident students, a payment of more than $650 a month.
  • Help for disabled: Veterans with service-connected disabilities who are eligible for GI Bill benefits but electing to participate in Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment training will become eligible for a new living allowance, too, of up to $780 a month. This will provide financial help to disabled vets who don't want to lose VRE case management services but have been missing out on the stipend paid to Post-9/11 GI Bill users.
  • Kickers: Students who received recruitment or retention kickers from the Defense Department under Montgomery GI Bill or MGIB for Selected Reserves will be able to convert that assistance into post-9/11 benefits.
  • Tim Tetz, director of American Legion's national legislative commission, estimates that 400,000 veterans will benefit from these and other changes in the first year after reforms take effect. He particularly lauded the expansion in type of training covered, and the extension of benefits to as many as 85,000 more National Guard members.

    But Tetz said the reduction in stipend payments and the cap on tuition fees for private schools were an unfortunate price to pay to ensure passage.

    Earlier drafts of the reform package from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee would have set the nationwide cap on benefits at private colleges at $20,000. But in late-hour negotiations in the lame-duck session of Congress, the cap was lowered to ensure the reform bill was cost-neutral.

    The cap might have been lower than necessary, suggested one Senate source. When the Congressional Budget Office used a more accurate figure for number of National Guard members newly eligible for the post-9/11 benefits, its final cost estimate came as a surprise to architects of the package. It went beyond cost neutral to save $734 million over 10 years.

    Keith Wilson, director of Veterans Affairs' education service, said recently that the totality of changes made to the new GI bill unquestionably will make it better both for beneficiaries and for schools.

    "This is a good piece of legislation that addresses a lot of the things that weren't addressed in, or that we've learned since, the initial legislation. From the perspective of the user, it simplifies a lot of things and simplification for our potential students is good," Wilson said.

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