Military Veterans At Private Universities Fear Being Robbed Of G.I. Bill Dollars

Cameron Baker, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran, knew it was finally time to make his exit from military life: After two deployments to Iraq and three additional years spent as a private contractor, Baker had grown not only hyper-vigilant, but plagued by anxiety, rage and despair.

His days were pockmarked with what he describes as "pretty horrific violence occurring at regularly scheduled intervals."

At 18, he left his childhood home in Arlington, Texas and joined the Air Force. If Baker hadn’t enlisted, he predicts that he’d still be in Texas, working at a dead-end, minimum-wage job. But once out, Baker enrolled at South Plains College, a community college in nearby Levelland, where a 3.9 grade-point average landed him a spot in the honor society. Subsequently, Baker flashed across Columbia University’s radar — where he, along with hundreds of other high-achieving veterans, were recruited to attend its School of General Studies, many as part of the Yellow Ribbon Program, which is a provision of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

Since its passage in 2008, the revamped G.I. Bill provides veterans who have served for a minimum of three years since Sept. 11, 2001 with full tuition at public two- and four-year schools. Money is allocated on a state-by-state basis and capped according to the highest amount of public in-state tuition. The Yellow Ribbon Program acts as a supplement so that eligible veterans can afford to attend private institutions. The money can also be used to cover out-of-state public schools and graduate or doctoral programs. In this way, the promise of the Yellow Ribbon Program was that it would enable veterans like Baker to attend private institutions free of cost.

Baker arrived at Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus with a specific understanding: Between money provided by the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill (presently capped at $1,010 per credit hour for a full-time student in New York State), in addition to Columbia’s contribution of $5,100 as part of the Yellow Ribbon Program, and the V.A.’s matching grant, not to mention a separate stipend for housing and other incidentals, he’d be able to earn a bachelor’s degree without having to incur any personal debt.

But those rules changed in December of last year when the law was amended. Baker and his classmates were promised one thing and subsequently given another.

Beginning Aug. 1, 2011, the current crop of students at Columbia, not to mention other veterans from across the country, will see their tuition capped at $17,500, regardless of the state in which they reside.

For Baker, and many of his classmates, taking on increased debt simply isn’t an option.

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