Just a few months after securing a historic, multibillion-dollar increase in veterans educational benefits, some veterans groups may ask Congress to wipe out part of what they gained.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the American Legion are among groups considering asking lawmakers to place a cap – $13,000 per year has been suggested by the IAVA – on tuition aid for veterans. That’s far less than would be available in many states under a new GI bill for post-9/11 troops but is enough to cover virtually all public college costs, advocates of the limit say.
The cap would make the new benefit program easier for veterans to understand and simpler for the Department of Veterans Affairs to run, said Patrick Campbell, the IAVA’s legislative counsel. The law passed last fall creates more than 315,000 possible combinations of benefits, Campbell argues in a message posted on the group’s Web site.
He’s particularly concerned that the new law creates wide variances in the aid available to vets in different states.
"It’s a matter of fairness," he said. "I don’t know how you can justify giving one state so little and another so much."
The disparity is the latest complication to arise in what will be the largest military benefit increase since the end of World War II.
"I think at this point, everyone’s a little overwhelmed," said Rep. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican who serves on the House subcommittee overseeing veterans education programs.
Boozman is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who are looking at possible technical changes to the law, including extending benefits to more than 40,000 National Guardsmen who work full time for state guards but have not been called into federal service.
The new law is the signature initiative of Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a freshman Democrat and former Navy secretary who overcame the opposition of the Bush administration to get it passed. It requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay each eligible veteran’s tuition and fees, up to the maximum charge at the most expensive public college in the state where the vet enrolls.
The law also gives vets $1,000 each year for books and materials and a housing allowance during the school year equal to that provided to troops on active duty.
Veterans who served before the 9/11 attacks will continue to receive aid under the Montgomery GI Bill. Congress beefed up that program last year, but its benefits often fall thousands of dollars short of actual college costs.
The VA expects that as many as 100,000 more veterans will seek college aid – about 400,000 now receive it. The agency estimates the 10-year cost of the new program at $78 billion.
With the law set to take effect Aug. 1, the VA has asked college officials in each state to provide data on their highest in-state tuition and fees. Because some schools base those charges in part on the programs a student chooses, the most expensive rate may be paid by only a handful of students.
Some of the maximums, which the VA posted on its Web site this month, are eye-popping.
Although the VA says the data are tentative, Texas, the most expensive state, quoted a maximum of $1,333 per credit hour in tuition and $12,130 per semester in fees. For a student carrying an average course load – 15 credit hours per semester – that would translate into annual aid of up to $64,250.
By contrast, in Wyoming, the cheapest state according to the VA figures, a vet’s maximum annual tuition aid would total just $3,621.
The Texas maximums are a combination of charges from two different schools and so represent total costs that no single student could incur, said Connie Jacksits, director of veterans education for the Texas Veterans Commission.
Texas does not routinely charge tuition by the credit hour, Jacksits added, and the cost per hour decreases as a student enrolls for additional hours. For full-time students, the highest tuition in Texas is $4,959 per semester, she said.
Such complexities have made it difficult for the VA to compute the maximum aid it will provide, said Keith Wilson, the agency’s director of education services. If an individual veteran’s actual costs are less than the maximum aid, the VA will pay only the actual costs.
For vets attending school in Virginia, the VA figures indicate the maximum aid per year would be just over $20,000. The IAVA said its research indicates that Virginia’s highest in-state tuition is the $9,473 paid by students at Virginia Military Institute.
In-state students at Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University, the four-year state colleges in South Hampton Roads, pay less than $7,000 in tuition and fees, so their costs would be fully covered under both the law passed last year and the IAVA proposal.
Whatever limits are ultimately set, reports of the bill’s enhanced benefits have caught veterans’ attention, said VA, college and military officials.
"We are getting a lot of questions," said Resty Orduna, a retired Navy personnel specialist who counsels other vets at Tidewater Community College’s Veteran Affairs office and attends TCC classes himself on the Montgomery GI Bill.
Orduna expects to shift to the new benefit plan this summer, an option available to him because part of his service came after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said he’s particularly pleased that the VA will make his tuition payments directly; under the Montgomery Bill he pays those costs and uses a monthly benefit check to gradually reimburse himself.
Other vets, like Pete Tapyrik of Virginia Beach, are looking to share part of their benefit with their children, an option provided by the new law. After 21 years in the Air Force, working with munitions and then in intelligence, Tapyrik is pointing toward a new career as a chef. He’s attending TCC now on the Montgomery Bill and will save benefits under the new law for his 10-year-old daughter.
So far, though, he said he hasn’t been able to find out how much that will total. Under the new law, it depends on how much aid a veteran already has received and his or her length of service.
More than 400 military and college counselors peppered the VA’s Wilson with questions about such intricacies of the new law during a two-hour session earlier this month at ODU.
Wilson was quick to admit he didn’t have all the answers, but insisted the VA will work through them in time to meet the August deadline.
The agency has hired more than 500 people to help administer the new program after deciding last fall that a new automated system to handle inquiries and an expected flood of paperwork could not be ready in time.
"They are mounting a herculean effort to get this done," the IAVA’s Campbell said. (Virginian Pilot)