Tens of thousands of additional military veterans who have just finished up their post-Sept. 11 duties are expected to enroll at the nation’s colleges and universities this fall, lured in part by the most significant expansion of educational veterans benefits since the original GI Bill was signed in 1944.
But while the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which goes into effect Saturday, will be a much better deal for veterans in many states, the new law may not be so popular with veterans attending public universities in Missouri and Illinois.
That’s because both states already offer generous tuition breaks that may make it more lucrative for many to stick with the old federal GI Bill.
That means that public universities in Missouri and Illinois will likely continue to absorb a large portion of the costs to educate veterans. That’s in contrast to the new GI Bill, in which the federal government pays colleges directly for the full cost of educating these students.
Still, the new bill does have some major benefits for Missouri and Illinois veterans, namely a provision that will give them the option to attend private universities for free — or close to it — if those schools are among more than 1,100 participating campuses.
Terry Dale Cruse, dean of enrollment at Missouri Baptist University, noted that the new bill will make private universities a more affordable option to veterans who prefer smaller campuses or specific programs.
"Students basically have the same opportunity whether they want to enroll in a state school or a private school," he said. "This really broadens the access for students."
The new GI Bill gives veterans the option to have the federal government directly pay public universities in full for their tuition and fees. On top of that, returning combat veterans will get a housing and textbook allowance.
Under the old Montgomery GI Bill veterans received about $1,321 a month, out of which they paid tuition, fees, housing and living expenses. But they often also had to take out student loans to cover all of their costs.
Keith Widaman figured he gets $150 more every month under the old GI Bill. That’s because Missouri only makes veterans pay $50 a credit hour — instead of as much as $245 a credit hour at the University of Missouri-Columbia — under the Missouri Returning Heroes Education Act passed last year.
"The Returning Heroes Act is a phenomenal opportunity," said Widaman, who started taking classes this summer at MU after returning from eight years in places such as Iraq, Kuwait and Haiti with the Marine Corps. "That’s why the new GI Bill doesn’t do much for me."
Carol Fleisher, director of MU’s veterans center, said staying on the old bill has turned out to be a better deal for the majority — but not all — of the school’s 300 or so students currently using military benefits. It’s the same with the more than 60 veterans who have enrolled at MU for the first time this fall, she said.
In the first year since Missouri put into place the tuition break for veterans, MU has reshuffled it budget to find $214,000 to pay for the state program, said Tim Rooney, the school’s budget director.
Rooney said he was aware that the state law was leading many veterans to stay on the old GI Bill instead of letting the federal government reimburse the university in full under the new bill. He said he expected that the university’s lobbyists will explore the issue in coming months.
The tuition break for veterans in Illinois is even more charitable. Under the Illinois Veterans Grant, veterans get free tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges.
A recent analysis by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission estimated only 40 percent of eligible veterans will choose to use the benefits of the new GI bill. For the rest, students will get more money by pairing the state grant with the benefits of the old GI Bill.
Since Illinois has not fully funded the grant recently, more of the burden has shifted to universities. Southern Illinois University had to find $1.2 million from its budget for the grant last year. And school officials expect that to increase this year to $1.5 million as more veterans enroll and stay under the old GI Bill. SIUE had 564 students who used some kind of veteran benefits last semester.
State officials in Illinois, including the governor’s office, are looking for ways to encourage more students to use the new bill to alleviate the burden on the state and its universities.
Under the new GI Bill, the federal government will pay up to the highest public in-state tuition level of each state if veterans attend a private university.
On top of that, most St. Louis-area private universities have signed onto the Yellow Ribbon portion of the bill, in which the government agrees to match any additional scholarships the school gives to make up the remaining balance. Most area schools have agreed to maximum matches, allowing veterans to attend those schools for free.
Brent Brugman, 27, used the old GI Bill to go to Lindenwood University in 2007-08. Even though the school also gave him a military scholarship, he still had to take out $10,000 in loans to cover tuition as well as his living expenses. The following year, the Marine Corps recalled him back involuntarily and stationed him for seven months in Fallujah, Iraq.
He’s returning to Lindenwood this fall — but this time under the Yellow Ribbon program, so he does not have to worry about taking out loans. It’s a deal that has caught the interest of many of his military buddies.
"Most of them were working dead-end jobs," Brugman said. "But now a lot of them are going back to school" under the new program.
St. Louis University has already had 22 veterans apply since it started accepting applications July 15 under the Yellow Ribbon program.
"It’s a win-win for colleges and universities," said Boyd Bradshaw, SLU’s vice provost for enrollment, of the Yellow Ribbon program. It’s obviously a great deal for veterans. And he said the university, which has about 50 veterans in its student body, appreciates the added diversity.
The school will basically break even by offering the benefit, Bradshaw said.
While the admissions deadlines have already passed for the fall semester at Washington University, Bill Witbrodt, director of student financial aid, said he hopes more veterans will apply and enroll starting in January and next fall, adding to the school’s 12 undergraduates and 28 graduate students using military benefits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs expects 460,000 veterans to enroll in college in the fall, up from 354,000 last fall.
To handle the surge in benefit claims, the VA’s regional office in downtown St. Louis has hired 150 employees in recent months, bringing its education staff to about 350. The office, which has spilled over into a second building, processes claims for 16 states in the central United States.
Marie George, the chief education liaison officer, said the staff has been working around the clock to process roughly 30,000 claims that have inundated the office since May 1. She said she expects the volume to increase as people become more comfortable with the program.
"We knew there would be hesitation about accepting a new education program," she said.
Some universities have also been prepping to help acclimate the new crop of veterans about to descend on campuses. MU commissioned a task force last year to explore ways to make the school more veteran-friendly. One result: the veterans office, which opened in December.
The office has helped organize two veterans-only classes this upcoming year — one on adjusting to university life and a second on leadership.
Fleisher also started a support group for veterans on campus a couple years ago.
"Veterans kept coming into our office saying, ‘Am I the only veteran on this campus?’" she said. "It occurred to me that it would be a good thing for them to get together because they are older, and they are sitting in classes with 18- and 19-year-olds." (St.Louis Today)