GI Bill Lets Veterans Take Flight

Under the new GI Bill, a veteran attending college in Colorado would be eligible for a tuition benefit of up to $419 per credit hour, and also up to $43,035, per term, to cover any student fees.

That’s right: up to $43,035 for fees (not tuition). The new Post-9/11 GI Bill will cover veterans’ tuition and fees up to the highest undergraduate, resident rates charged by a public institution in a state. And some of those highest figures are in fact quite high, inflated due to higher-cost programs like, in Colorado’s case, helicopter pilot training at Aims Community College. “The fees that are included in that are for the rental of the aircraft, the flight instruction and so forth,” explained Daniel Webster, director of the state’s Office of Veterans Education and Training.

In February, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a preliminary listing of maximum tuition and fees payable under the GI Bill, raising some eyebrows — including on Capitol Hill — for wide disparities, even gulfs, separating states, and startlingly high fee structures. In a final listing, now available online, those figures have ascended ever higher, sometimes even to the 40,000-foot (er, dollar) level.

For instance, the VA’s preliminary chart listed maximum per-term fees payable to veterans in Oregon as $1,836; they’re now $42,828 — again because of an aviation program, this one at Central Oregon Community College.

“When we in Oregon initially looked at it and did our research, we used the definition of basically a universal fee that any student walking into a [public] college would have to pay,” said Diane Baldwin, an education specialist at the Oregon Department of Education (which serves as the state approving agency for veterans). However, Baldwin said, in a February meeting with colleagues in other states, it became apparent that some were sticking to a universal fees definition and some were looking at program-specific fees.

“Since it was to the benefit of veterans in Oregon to look at the second definition, we reevaluated,” Baldwin said, pointing out that the first definition would shortchange the veteran who wanted flight training. She submitted the $42,000+ figure to the VA. “I figured I’d get an e-mail back saying, ‘What are you doing?’ But what I did when I submitted it was provide the background information and the Web link. So they accepted it and posted it. So at this point they must be deferring to the second definition if that is what the state approving agency is providing them."

In a written description of the final figures, the VA in fact makes explicit that point of including program-specific fees, stating, "All undergraduate program costs were taken into consideration to determine the highest in-state maximum tuition per credit hour and the maximum fees per term. These figures may include program tuition for high cost programs such as flight courses taken as part of a degree requirement or undergraduate pharmacy, nursing and engineering charges."

It may still be the case, however, that states are not consistent in what they’re counting. Listed tuition and fee rates payable to veterans vary greatly across states. Maximum total fees payable to a veteran per term range from $127 in Arizona to $43,035 in Colorado. Eight states list maximum per-term fees under $1,000; 14 states have submitted figures over $10,000. Maximum tuition charges payable, meanwhile, range from $71.50 per credit hour in Massachusetts to $1,333 per credit hour in Texas.

The VA’s public relations office did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday afternoon, but in comments about the preliminary published rates at a February Congressional hearing, Keith M. Wilson, the director of the VA’s education service, said the posted figures were based on statutory requirements.

“They don’t represent averages. … They simply represent the situation in each state that is the highest in-state undergraduate public tuition in that state. That’s the only thing those numbers represent.” He also said the department had no position on the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s call for a national tuition and fee cap of $13,000.

One implication of the maximum public tuition and fees payable to a veteran in each state is the amount of money veterans can apply to a private university bill before the Yellow Ribbon, a matching program, would kick in. It’s important to note, however, that tuition and fees are calculated, and payable, separately under the new GI Bill. So a veteran eligible for up to $40,000 in fees couldn’t apply up to $40,000 to his or her total tuition costs, but only to the fee portion of a private college bill, which, as several people pointed out, would almost surely fall well below the maximum threshold payable in such a case.

“It establishes a threshold for all students statewide. I doubt that many students will have fees at this level,” said Joe Bertalan, director of the Wisconsin State Approving Agency. On the final VA chart, Wisconsin lists maximum tuition payable at $663 per credit hour, the amount charged in an accelerated nursing degree program at University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, and maximum fees payable at $30,979, fees associated with an aeronautics program at Gateway Technical College.

Originally, Wisconsin had listed maximum fees payable as being $4,202. That number came from a food and wine pairing course, an elective on a study abroad program, but the VA responded by saying study abroad-related fees don’t count, Bertalan said. "So at that point we did another search and we came across this one, which was actually considerably higher, and this is with Gateway Technical College in Kenosha."

Although the figures in the VA’s chart are described as final, they’ll be updated shortly to reflect this summer’s round of tuition and fee hikes. The 2009-10 figures are to be posted by August 1, the same day the new GI Bill goes into effect. (Inside Higher Ed)

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