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Congress passes expansion of GI Bill benefits

WASHINGTON — For the second time in two years, Congress has approved a major overhaul of GI Bill benefits, this time simplifying the formula for college tuition payments and awarding housing stipends to students attending classes online.

The measure, which passed the House in a 409 to 3 vote Thursday afternoon, would also allow more veterans to use the post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for vocational school and on-the-job training. Veterans groups had lobbied Congress vigorously for that change, saying veterans who were not interested in college classes were too limited under the previous rules.

The Senate approved the bill earlier this week. The president is expected to sign it into law before the end of the year, but the new tuition payments and program expansions won’t go into effect until August 2011.

Two years ago, Congress passed a major overhaul of the GI Bill, offering full college tuition at state schools to veterans who served at least three years on active duty after September 2001. The move represented a tremendous financial upgrade for most veterans, increasing payments from a few hundred dollars a month to free tuition plus room and board.

But Tom Tarantino, legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said even with the upgraded benefits, veterans advocates found gaps in tuition costs and student eligibility rules.

So far about 300,000 veterans and their family members have used the post-9/11 college benefits to attend classes, but the new GI Bill changes would allow another 90,000 National Guardsmen previously ineligible to apply for the benefit. The amount of tuition they can receive will be tied to their time on active duty, for overseas or stateside emergency response efforts.

The measure also simplifies tuition calculations for veterans attending private colleges.

Under the measure passed two years ago, a four-year degree program at any public college in a veterans’ home state is paid for in full, regardless of the total cost. But tuition payouts for those at private colleges are currently based on the most expensive state schools where veterans live.

For example, veterans from Michigan attending private universities receive nearly $28,000 a year in tuition reimbursement, while veterans at the same school who live in Missouri receive only about $7,500 annually.

Starting next fall, any veterans attending private universities will receive $17,500 in tuition payments, a figure tied to the median cost of private colleges. Tarantino said that number will rise annually, based on increases in the average cost of tuition.

In addition, the bill passed Thursday would grant students taking courses online a portion of the housing stipend awarded to “brick and mortar” students. That stipend is tied to basic allowance for housing calculations given to active-duty troops, and can total more than $2,000 a month.

The number of veterans eligible for the $1,000 book stipend would also be expanded. And vocational training and apprenticeships programs, which had remained under the old GI Bill rules, will now be moved into the post-9/11 GI Bill, which Tarantino said should ease confusion for most veterans over how the program is administered.

“With this, vets now have the freedom to choose their educational destiny,” he said. “This should give them more opportunities to go to vocational schools, or get on-the-job training.”

The measure would also extend the window when dependents of wounded troops can use the GI Bill benefits.

Under the current rules, spouses and dependent children of troops who qualify to transfer their tuition payments can use the money for 10 years after their servicemember retires from the military. But the new bill allows the families of injured troops to waive that 10-year restriction if taking care of their wounded servicemember prevents them from attending classes.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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