Bill to Expand Veterans' Education Benefits Begins Moving Through Congress

August 05, 2010

A major expansion of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits was approved in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday, about one year after the latest changes to veterans' educational aid took effect.

The bill, S. 3447, sponsored by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii, would increase the number of people who could receive benefits and expand the list of programs or training for which veterans could use the aid. It would also change the way housing and textbook allowances are calculated and provide in-state tuition and fees at public colleges, or up to $20,000, adjusted annually and based on the national average cost.

Advocates of the legislation are optimistic about its chances of making it through the full Senate, but without a cost analysis having been prepared yet, expanding the aid could be a challenge. If the bill were to pass, the Department of Veterans Affairs recommended that it become effective no sooner than August 1, 2011, which would allow more time to plan for its implementation. In the House, Rep. Walt C. Minnick, a Democrat from Idaho, proposed similar legislation, HR 5933, which is scheduled to be the subject of a committee hearing on September 16.

The new G.I. Bill, which Congress passed in 2008 and took effect last August, extended benefits beyond what the previous Montgomery GI Bill provided, giving new allowances for housing and textbooks, and making it easier to transfer benefits to a child or spouse. The proposed changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill would largely keep the bill's provisions intact, but the revisions seek to improve benefits so they are delivered in a "timely, accurate, and equitable way," Senator Akaka said.

The biggest change would be in how tuition benefits are calculated. The bill the committee passed would base the amount veterans could be eligible for on a national average, instead of giving veterans up to the full amount of tuition and fees at the most expensive public college in their state. That shift could help streamline the way the department processes benefits requests. Last year—the first time veterans were eligible for the new G.I. Bill benefits—many payments to veterans were delayed. The veterans-affairs department also is having to issue one-time checks to veterans who received a living stipend since January 1, because the department didn't update its benefits after military housing allowances increased. About 153,000 veterans will receive those housing checks; more than 270,000 people received G.I. benefits in the 2009-10 academic year.

The Department of Veterans Affairs improved its efficiency in processing requests from fall 2009 to the spring, working at more than three times the rate it did in the fall, said Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for Veterans Affairs. This summer the department allowed colleges to begin submitting proof of veterans' enrollment on June 1, even if tuition and fees weren't in place. Thus, 50,000 requests for benefits have already been processed for the fall.

"We underestimated the complexity of what we needed to do last fall, and there were unacceptable delays," Mr. Wilson said during a committee hearing last month. "We now have more resources to put toward it to better handle the implementation."

Among other changes the bill that passed the Senate committee would make are those that would extend benefits to all members of the National Guard and Active Guard Reserve; some are now ineligible for aid. The committee legislation would also allow veterans to receive aid for a wider array of educational programs, including vocational and on-the-job training, and change the ways housing and textbook allowances are calculated, providing funds for distance-learning students and basing the amount of payment for housing on the number of credit hours.