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January/February 2020

© Travis King
The GI Bill: Evolving Benefits


The GI Bill has a long, distinguished, and sometimes confusing history. Implemented in its more or less modern form as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, it was originally aimed at helping veterans returning from wartime service to reenter society by, among other things, providing health, housing, and educational benefits. The original act made provisions that eventually fell away or were deemphasized, including unemployment compensation and job counseling, but for many years it did exactly as it was supposed to do—especially by opening educational opportunities to veterans. By the beginning of the Korean War, for instance, almost half of all American college students were veterans, as compared to fewer than 10 percent today.

The original GI Bill, as it was known, provided annual tuition benefits of up to $500 (about $7,250 today), as well as a $20 weekly unemployment benefit (about $289 today) for a year. The Bill also provided low-cost loans for the purchases of homes or businesses, giving rise to the rapid growth of suburban towns and housing developments in the postwar era. As of 1955, when the population of the United States was half what it is today, almost 10 million veterans had received benefits under the Bill. Moreover, nearly 8 million veterans had earned degrees or certificates thanks to the tuition relief afforded by the Bill.

The Vietnam Era GI Bill

Modifications made to the GI Bill in the Vietnam Era affected veterans who served on active duty for more than 180 consecutive days between January 31, 1955, and before January 1, 1977. It provided for 1.5 months of educational assistance for each month of active duty, so that a standard two-year enlistment would net a veteran 36 months of tuition benefits, enough for most four-year degrees. The bill cut off funds at 45 months, and all educational benefits had to be used within ten years of separating from the service or on December 31, 1989, whichever came first.

The Montgomery GI Bill and Post–9/11 GI Bill

Named for Sonny Montgomery, the Mississippi congressman who sponsored it, the Montgomery GI Bill extended some Vietnam-era entitlements to some veterans, though it was principally targeted at veterans who had three years of continuous active service after June 30, 1985. It set a monthly tuition stipend of $1,789 for full-time students and reimbursed the costs of professional exams such as the certified medical assistant test. However, the Montgomery GI Bill limited tuition to 36 months and covered only tuition, as well as cutting off eligibility at that ten-year post-separation date, making it of use mostly to Vietnam veterans who had remained in the military.

Signed into law in 2008, the Post–9/11 GI Bill required at least 90 days of service after September 10, 2001. While it largely followed the provisions of the Montgomery GI Bill, it came under criticism because it employed a complicated formula tying benefits to length of service, excluding time spent in training. Less than six months of active-duty service, by its terms, earned a veteran only 40 percent of tuition costs. Many National Guard and Reserve units underwent extensive training periods before being deployed to places such as Iraq, but that active-duty component of the Post–9/11 GI Bill awarded benefits only for time spent in country. So it was widely seen as discriminating, if probably inadvertently, against those citizen soldiers.

The Forever GI Bill

The Forever GI Bill—technically the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017—was signed into law on August 16, 2017. Some of its provisions went into effect immediately; others were phased in later; and a few have yet to come fully online. Happily, even though every bill before Congress, it seems, meets with partisan division and no end of rancor, there was little argument about the justice underlying the legislation, which in large measure gave veterans a say in just when they would apply the benefits they had accrued. As Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), then the chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, remarked in a public statement at the time: “This legislation will enable veterans to use the education benefits they’ve earned through the GI Bill when and how it suits them best, setting them up for future success in whatever career they pursue.”

The Post–9/11 GI Bill had set a window of fifteen years after the last 90-day period of service in which veterans could use those benefits—more generous that the earlier ten-year window, but still tight. The Forever GI Bill does away with those time constraints altogether. It also extends benefits indefinitely to spouses of service members who died in the line of duty at any time after 9/11.

Recipients of the Purple Heart on or after that second date previously had been limited, under the terms of the Post–9/11 GI Bill, to a prorated disability allowance if they had not served for thirty-six months before being wounded, while the new law decreed that anyone wounded in service would receive 100 percent of available benefits. Given that at least 50,000 service members had been awarded the Purple Heart as of May 2011, the last date for which figures have been published, this provision affects a large population.

An extension that will go into effect in August 1, 2022, gives broader eligibility to the Yellow Ribbon Program, in which schools voluntarily reduce or eliminate some expenses that are not covered by any version of the GI Bill and applies this right to surviving spouses or children. The extension of the Yellow Ribbon Program also applies to some active-duty service members.

Veterans seeking a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines are eligible for an additional year of funding, since many such degree programs take more than four years to complete. The method used to calculate time in service and its associated benefits will change slightly beginning in August 2020: Service members with between three and six months on active duty will be eligible for 50 percent of benefits, as opposed to the previous 40 percent, and for those with between six months and eighteen months the sum will increase to 60 percent.

This additional benefit for short-term service will allow more National Guard troops and Reservists to participate, as will restoration of benefits that had been phased out when the Reserve Educational Assistance Program ended five years ago, ending the aforementioned criticism of the Post–9/11 GI Bill. The VA notes that priority will be given “to individuals who are entitled to 100 percent of Post–9/11 GI Bill benefits and to those who require the most credit hours,” presumably meaning that those who are just entering into STEM study have a leg up over those who enrolled a couple of years before. In all events, anyone holding a STEM degree is likely to be in a competitive position for a job, since STEM represents a hot sector of the economy. Even so, as of 2018 only some 15 percent of veterans were enrolled in STEM programs.

Veterans who enrolled for benefits after January 1, 2018, saw a 1 percent decrease in their housing allowances. This stipend is pegged to the basic housing allowance for an E–5 with dependents but is also conditioned on the location of one’s school, the dates of attendance, number of credit hours, and other factors. All that posed a challenge to the VA’s computer systems, requiring an overhaul that was completed in December 2019.

Another marginal decrease applies to surviving spouses and children who receive benefits through the VA’s Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance Program: As of October 1, 2019, their monthly allowance for full, three-quarter, and half-time coursework increased by $200, but coverage fell from 45 months to 36 months. (Those in the program before July 1, 2018, remain eligible for the full 45 months.) This program applies to dependents of veterans who are permanently and totally disabled due to a service-related injury or condition, as well as those of veterans who died on active duty or from a service-related condition.

Finally, a somewhat unwieldy program that went into effect in January 2019 applies to technical institutes: The VA pays the school 25 percent of tuition and fees on the veteran’s enrollment, 25 percent on completion of the program, and 50 percent on both completion and the veteran securing a job in the field of study.

It took a considerable degree of arm-twisting and politicking to get the Forever GI Bill through Congress. Some states had already taken the matter in hand, and some long before. Texas, for example, established the Hazlewood Legacy Act in several phases after World War II, giving all Texas veterans—now meaning any veteran residing in Texas—up to 150 hours of free tuition, extending the benefit to dependent children. As more of its provisions go online, the Act has proven both generous and expensive: the Hazlewood Act cost Texas universities $169 million in 2014 and was expected to exceed $379 million in 2019.

The core component of the Forever GI Bill remains the fact that it pays 100 percent of in-state tuition rates for veterans. Apart from that, the important takeaway from the Forever GI Bill is that the new version removes several restrictions and time limitations, giving veterans time to adjust to civilian life without the endless bureaucratic nightmares of past implementations. There’s still a bureaucracy to navigate, but it’s a little friendlier to applicants—and most colleges and universities have counselors who work specifically with veterans.

Know Your Rights

The biggest problem with the GI Bill is not the complexities of navigating the system, but the fact that veterans who are fully qualified to receive them do not always apply for their earned benefits.

For instance, the Forever GI Bill makes provisions to restore funds that were paid to schools that later closed, such as the many campuses of DeVry University, as well as ITT Technical Institute, Corinthian, and other for-profit (and sometimes fly-by-night) entities. Thousands of veterans were affected by these closures—indeed, the for-profits had targeted veterans precisely because, while the schools were allowed to receive up to 90 percent of their funding from the government by way of student loans and the like, GI Bill benefits were excluded from that figure by virtue of a perhaps unintended loophole. Whatever the case, the VA has reported that a small number of affected veterans—only some 20 percent—have applied to be reimbursed.

Similarly, as of the beginning of 2015, many veterans had been denied GI Bill coverage because they had received Other-Than-Honorable discharges, often related to PTSD. The Pentagon estimates that as many as 80,000 Vietnam veterans received such discharges. Because PTSD was not formally diagnosed as a psychiatric medical condition until 1980, most went into a kind of administrative limbo. A 2014 lawsuit filed by five veterans cleared the way for the upgrade of benefits, but even so, only a few hundred have applied for them.

A Changing VA

A missing piece of the GI Bill puzzle has long been economic opportunity. The VA admits that at least one in two veterans will endure at least one period of unemployment. The good news is that veterans who do work tend to earn 10 percent more over their lifetimes than their non-veteran peers.

In 2018, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called for a reorganization of the VA to give greater emphasis to economic opportunity, saying, “For far too long, the outdated structure of the VA has allowed economic opportunity and transition programs for our veterans to fall to the wayside.” The following year, the Veterans’ Education, Transition, and Opportunity Prioritization Plan (VET OPP) passed the House but, in April 2019, was referred to committee in the Senate; it has yet to emerge for a vote in a Senate that has been marked by inaction.

The legislation would establish a branch of the VA called the Veterans Economic Opportunity Administration to administer more capably matters related to education, health benefits, and employment programs. Current top leadership positions in education and health in the VA are unfilled, however, and no one has stepped up to make much of anything happen, even though it’s self-evident that a good job is as essential to a veteran’s health as a working hospital.

Veterans who served in theaters such as the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan are better covered under the terms of the Forever GI Bill than they would have been otherwise. Vietnam veterans still seem in too many ways to be the forgotten stepchildren of the system.

© Travis King





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