New changes in store for GI Bill

Veterans using the Post-9/11 GI bill will see their monthly living stipends stopped between fall and winter semesters, starting next year, and only full time students will continue to draw stipends at the 100 percent rate.

Those two cost-saving changes, plus a new $17,500 nationwide cap on Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for students attending private colleges and universities, freed up enough program dollars for Congress to expand new GI Bill eligibility and improve other features, all to take effect by fall of 2011.

So say lawmakers and congressional staff members who negotiated final details of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010. Congress passed the bill, S 3447, before Christmas. President Obama will sign it into law at a White House ceremony in early January.

Here is part of what was gained by streamlining use of the stipend and imposing the new tuition cap for all private college degree programs:

• Expanded coverage: Post-9/11 GI benefits no longer will be limited to pursuing a college degree. Veterans will be able to use their benefits also to gain skills through on-the-job training, apprenticeships, vocational-technical schools and other non-degree granting institutions.

• More guard members eligible: Correcting an oversight of the 2008 GI Bill law, National Guard members soon will quality for the new GI Bill if activated for sufficient length of time since 9/11 under Title 32 for domestic emergencies or homeland security missions. Also qualifying will be fulltime service under the Active Guard and Reserve (AGR) program.

• Complexity reduced: New GI Bill benefits used at public colleges and universities will continue to cover full tuition and fees. But the variance in entitlements for attending private colleges will be end through use of a $17,500 benefit cap, to be adjusted annually based on the nationwide rise in education costs. The cap will replace different ceilings in every state based on tuition and fees at its most expensive degree-granting public college.

• Book stipends: Active duty members and spouses attending college will be eligible for the new GI bill book stipend, up to $1000 a year.

• Online students: Students exclusively taking classes online will receive a living stipend equal to half of the average housing allowance stipend paid to resident students, a payment of more than $650 a month.

• Help for disabled: Veterans with service-connected disabilities who are eligible for GI Bill benefits but electing to participate in Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE) training will become eligible for a new living allowance too, of up to $780 a month. This will provide financial help to disabled vets who don’t want to lose VRE case management services but have been missing out on the stipend paid Post-9/11 GI Bill users.

• Kickers: Students who received recruitment or retention kickers from the Defense Department under Montgomery GI Bill or MGIB for Selected Reserves will be able to convert that assistance into Post-9/11 benefits.

Tim Tetz, director of American Legion’s national legislative commission, estimates that 400,000 veterans will benefit from these and other changes in the first year after reforms take effect. He particularly lauded the expansion in type of training covered, and the extension of benefits to as many as 85,000 more National Guard members.

The reform bill tightens the new GI Bill in less obvious ways too. For example, it will become a kind of payer of last resort, picking up only whatever charges remain after other forms of support, including state-paid educational assistance for veterans, have been applied to school costs.