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Congress passes GI Bill fixes

WASHINGTON — Just days before the start of the fall semester, Congress has approved a host of changes to the way GI Bill benefits will be paid in an effort to prevent thousands of veterans from facing a steep drop in tuition payouts.

The measure, passed by a 424-0 vote in the House on Tuesday, would guarantee that student veterans enrolled in classes will receive at least as much tuition funding from the education benefit next semester as they did last semester. The president is expected to sign the bill into law in coming days.

On Aug. 1, changes approved by Congress last fall will set the maximum yearly tuition for students attending private or out-of-state colleges at $17,500. In-state tuition for veterans is covered fully by the post-9/11 GI Bill and will not be affected.

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The private college payout changes will mean thousands more annually for most veterans, but they’ll hurt students from seven states where the reimbursement rates were higher than the $17,500 cap.

Students from a number of high-priced private colleges petitioned Congress in recent months to grandfather them in at their old rates until graduation, to ensure they didn’t face new student loan payments to finish their degrees.

The bill passed Tuesday, dubbed the “GI Bill Fairness Act,” will do that, but only for students at private colleges. That should help about 6,000 students who meet that criteria, but not a few thousand fewer who are attending out-of-state public universities.

Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his group is still concerned about that population and the potential debt they could face, but “Congress should get credit for getting this far when it’s clear there isn’t the mood for new spending.”

The initial estimate for the tuition fixes was about $50 million, although that figure assumed more than 6,000 veterans would have been affected.

In a statement, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said by approving the fixes, lawmakers are “keeping our promise to America’s student veterans … enabling them to stay in the school of their choice.”

Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs had said earlier that changes the tuition payout rules this late in the summer could throw the entire GI Bill processing system into disarray, potential disrupting payouts to the nearly 800,000 student receiving the benefit.

However, VA officials backed off that stance in recent days, instead saying that it will likely only slow delivery of benefits for the few thousand affected veterans.

Tarantino said his group will continue to push for additional fixes to the tuition payouts, but they are also hopeful that schools will step in this fall with tuition assistance packages to keep those veterans in class.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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