Transferability comes with ease

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

It’s easy to imagine awkward moments on college campuses these days as veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan era mix with another category of student also using generous education benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

“What’s your service and where did you serve?”

“I didn’t. My dad (mom) did.”

More than 38,000 military children and spouses have gone to college this past year on benefits transferred to them from military careerists and recent retirees. And that flow has just begun.

Through early September, the services had approved requests from 145,000 service members to transfer GI Bill benefits to 331,000 children and spouses. Congressional auditors two years ago estimated the transferability feature alone would add $10 billion to program costs over the first decade.

Benefits can be transferred to a spouse if the member has served at least six years and commits to four more. Transfer to children, in return for that extra time, is allowed after 10 years’ service.

But GI Bill transfers are in overdrive right now because Defense officials made almost the entire career force eligible, and eliminated or reduced that extra service obligation for those near to retirement.

As a result, awkward moments over transferability are occurring on Capitol Hill too. In July, at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said the Department of Defense “has too broadly extended this benefit.”

Akaka said Congress believed transferability would be used selectively, to retain members with critical skills, and not to reward all careerists. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), chief architect of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, in a brief interview Friday, recalled how he hesitated to accept transferability when pushed by the Bush administration in final GI Bill negotiations.

The first bill Webb introduced as a new senator in 2007 was a GI Bill to rival the post-World War II benefit, paying the full cost of college for a new generation of warriors, at least at state-run schools. When his idea gained steam in early 2008, Republican leaders countered with a more modest plan to beef up the Montgomery GI Bill. Defense leaders preferred this, fearing Webb’s more generous plan would put force readiness at risk, enticing many to leave for college after a single hitch or mid-career.

Then-Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) proposed a compromise, a transferability test to allow members to give half of their new GI Bill benefit to family members. Bush had endorsed transferability in his 2008 State of the Union address, so it snowballed into a very robust feature of Webb’s bill.

Eligibility would depend on how Defense officials wrote the implementing regulation. What they produced was far more inclusive than many observers had expected. Even some veterans’ service organizations were surprised at how expansive they made GI Bill transferability.