Questions on Tuition for New GI Bill

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has posted a preliminary, state-by-state list of the maximum amount of tuition and fees payable to veterans under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, and the numbers are causing some confusion – not least because they are in many cases higher, and in some cases, much higher, than anticipated.
Under the new GI Bill, which goes into effect in August, eligible veterans can get their tuition covered up to the cost at the most expensive public college in the state, based on undergraduate resident tuition and fees, in addition to receiving housing and book stipends. The estimated price-tag for the legislation is high: $28.1 billion over the first five years and $78.1 billion through 2018. But some worry whether the cost will rise even higher if the preliminary rates published online by the VA stand. In Texas, for instance, the maximum charge per credit hour listed is $1,333, and the maximum total fees listed, per term, are $12,750.

University of Texas at Austin’s resident tuition and fee rates for undergraduates are in the $8,000s or low $9,000s this year, with the exact figure varying by area of study.

The figures in the VA table vary widely from state to state. Bryan J. Cook, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education, compared the VA’s published maximum rates to flagship university rates across the states; in 30 or 31 cases, he said, the VA’s published rates were significantly higher. “In most states, students would be eligible for a tuition and fees amount above [that of] the highest-costing flagships,” he said.

“Essentially, what it looks like they’ve done is they’ve taken the highest charge per credit hour of a particular institution and then they found the highest fee amount at an institution, but they could be two completely different institutions. And then you put those together to come up with the amount that a student would be eligible for under the new GI Bill in that particular state,” Cook said.

“One of the biggest concerns that we have right now is that for most legislation, Congress has to cost it out, so they have an idea of what any type of initiative or program is going to cost the federal government. Among most of the people I’ve talked to, there’s a general consensus that the cost under the table the VA put out is probably not what Congress imagined when they put this bill in place.”

One implication, if the higher-than-anticipated rates stand in certain states, could be for the transfer of federal educational benefits to private colleges, both nonprofit and for-profit. (For-profit colleges are among the biggest educators of veterans; University of Phoenix leads the pack among all colleges in terms of receiving veterans’ benefits.) Veterans can apply GI Bill tuition benefits, up to the maximum in-state, undergraduate public tuition and fees charged in each state, to private institutions. Beyond that, private colleges can enter into matching agreements with the VA to cover the outstanding balance.

In Tennessee, the maximum amount of tuition and fees a student could at least theoretically carry to a private institution, before any matching would kick in, is high, particularly on the fee side: The maximum total fees amount to $15,130, and the maximum per-credit hour charge listed by the VA is $265. By contrast, undergraduate tuition and fees at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is a lot less than that maximum number, at $6,250 per year.

So where did those higher numbers on VA’s chart come from? In Tennessee’s case, at least, a very pricey public aviation program, explained Tom Morrison, assistant executive director of veterans education at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “They wanted us to submit to them [the VA] the program in the state which charges the maximum amount,” said Morrison, who cited the undergraduate program in aerospace at Middle Tennessee State University. “The flight labs for that program are what drove our costs way up. That’s what I sent; of course that doesn’t represent what most [students] of the state would be spending.”

In fact, the high $15,000+ total fee amount comes from the most expensive semester-long term in the flight training program, Morrison said. At the same time, the maximum tuition rate, at $265 per credit hour, is derived from a separate program, the Regents Online Degree Program, a collaborative initiative across the state institutions. “If MTSU did not have the aerospace program with those very costly flight labs in it, it would be a whole different deal,” said Morrison, who added that he submitted information to the VA on more conventional college costs as well.

Keith Wilson, director of education services for the VA, was unavailable to offer clarification Friday; a scheduled late afternoon interview was canceled due to a last-minute meeting. The VA chart posted online is listed as being preliminary, as “being made available to assist veterans and schools with their planning.” Thirteen state figures have asterisks by them, indicating that numbers are being verified with state approving agencies (Tennessee is among those states with an asterisk; Texas is not). Two states are listed as having not responded to the VA request for data, Kentucky and Massachusetts.

Cook, of ACE, said that the higher education coordinating association hopes to continue working closely with the VA to clarify what the maximum per-state tuition and fees are, and what the listed rates mean. “In no way are we trying to attack the VA…. We’re just trying to get a better understanding of exactly what went into the numbers in this table,” Cook said, adding, too, a need for better instructions on how to interpret the numbers in the table (do you, for instance, multiply the per-term total fees by two in all cases, or the per-credit charge by 24, to estimate the annual maximum rate)? “The other thing is that whatever is done, it has to be consistent within each state,” Cook said. “If you’re going to throw in outliers in one state you have to look at other states.”

“I just have a general question of are we comparing apples and apples here?” said Susan K. Hattan, a senior consultant to National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “In other words, is a term defined as a quarter, a semester or whatever, or does it vary from state to state? And if it does then how do you do the math?”

“These are just questions. I’m sure they’ll be further clarified.”  (Inside Higher Ed)

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