Sunday, August 01, 2010

Servicemembers need a chance at college

These National Guard troops have laid two miles of protective boxes along Dauphin Island

By way of Craig Newmark (the Craigslist guy), I recently heard about and signed a petition asking Congress to include the time served by National Guard troops cleaning up after BP as counting toward their educational benefits. Apparently, unless Congress acts, their time breathing fumes and handling poisons may not count. You can sign too.
I recently had a chance to ask an Iraq war vet who is currently in college how the benefits were working for him. Too often, what is ostensibly on offer from big bureaucracies proves too difficult to obtain to be really useful. This is not this fellow's experience. For him, the system is working. I'm pleased to share some of his explanation.

The new GI bill provides 3 benefits: tuition, housing allowance, and an annual book stipend. Veterans receive these benefits for a period of 36 months (most vets receive benefits for 9 months out of every year, so collect benefits for 4 years). I believe vets have 10 years from their date of discharge to start using these benefits.

Maximum tuition is determined per state. Each state reports its highest in state tuition for a public school. The VA pays this money directly to the school. In the case of private schools, the VA will pay the max tuition, and if the school elects to contribute additional money under a "yellow ribbon scholarship", then the VA will match that money. For instance, if the state tuition cap would only cover 50 percent of a private school's tuition, and the school is willing to contribute 25 percent in yellow ribbon scholarships, then the VA will actually pay 75 percent of the tuition.

Housing allowances are determined by zip code. The housing allowance is the same Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH, paid to soldiers who live in off post apartments or houses) that the military would pay an E-5 grade enlisted soldier. Nationwide, this can range anywhere from $2700 (in Hawaii I think) to $300 (somewhere in Kentucky) per month. I'm not sure how they calculate this figure, but people who live in expensive areas generally pocket more BAH after their rent than people who live in less expensive areas (as I experienced first hand, when I moved from Alaska, where I was getting $1800 per month to pay my $1200 rent, to Louisiana, where I got $800 to pay my $800 rent).

The annual book stipend is a fixed $1000 that student veterans receive in August.

These benefits are conferred to anyone who served one year or more of active duty time after 9/11/2001. So even active duty soldiers who haven't been to Iraq or Afghanistan are eligible. Anyone in the reserves or national guard, who was activated for one year or more after 9/11, are also eligible. Those who were in the reserves or national guard who were activated for less than a year, will receive a percentage of these benefits depending on how much active duty time they served (I think there are 10 percent milestones). [This is what the law the National Guard petition supports would clarify.]

These new benefits took effect on August 1st, 2009 (lucky me, that was the day I got out of the army!). Unfortunately the VA wasn't anticipating the number of applicants, so many applications became so backlogged that about 50 percent of applicants did not receive their benefits on time. ... Some veterans were dropped by their schools, had to take out personal loans to pay their rent, or decided not to attend college at all. At one point in October, the VA actually started issuing $3000 relief checks to student veterans who were still waiting for payments. In addition, some veterans who added or dropped classes mid semester suddenly stopped receiving their housing allowances(!?).

I personally didn't have any trouble with my paperwork, tuition, or housing payments. ... My only complaint is that the BAH is only paid 9 months out of the year. So in between semesters, I have to work full time. I imagine not every vet out there has the ability to find a full time job for only 3 months. Then again, if we were good with our budgets, we'd put enough BAH aside every month to cover our rent during the summer.

Actually I have another complaint. We don't have access to any sort of records regarding our payments. I guess the plus side of this is that our housing allowance isn't reported as income. But the downside, well, I guess I would just feel more comfortable if I got some sort of monthly statement that highlighted everything. Other than those gripes though, the new GI Bill is an amazing opportunity.

The original GI Bill after World War II changed who thought about pursuing higher education in this country by making it possible for millions of vets to attend colleges. It also changed the campuses by mixing in these older, possibly wiser, certainly more worldly, students with the usual young folks.

The current crop of vets taking advantage of educational benefits is a much smaller group, but still will likely have an influence on campuses. By and large, they come from a different class and bring different experiences than young students. They've seen a lot and need to process what, if anything, these wars meant. Their fellow students need a chance to meet folks for whom war is not a video game. And hopefully the campuses will help vet's re-entry into civilian society now that they are home from the wars. In every way, getting these folks into a place where they can reflect is a good thing they deserve and we all need.

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