As shutdown threatens GI Bill, some beneficiaries worried
The Roanoke Times, Va. (MCT)
A growing number of college students across the country will begin to feel financial pain next month if the partial federal government shutdown continues.
Military veterans and their dependents attending college under the GI Bill are set to lose a substantial monthly benefit on Nov. 1 if Congress remains gridlocked over the budget and the debt ceiling.
For some, the short-term loss of a living expense allowance would be inconvenient but manageable, said Daniel Pierce-Parra, a former Marine who serves as vice president of the Veterans at Virginia Tech student organization.
But for others, it could delay graduation or even force some veterans to drop out, Pierce-Parra said.
“As long as it’s not two months, I could manage” without the stipend, Pierce-Parra said. “If it drags on, some veterans will have to leave school.”
Pierce-Parra, a 24-year-old who served five years in the Marines, is today a sophomore political science major at Tech.
In exchange for active-duty military service, he and others like him receive up to 100 percent of tuition, as well as living expenses and textbook allowances for up to 36 months of schooling under the post-9/11 GI Bill.
More than 400 student veterans at Tech are enrolled under the GI Bill, Pierce-Parra said. Another 600 or so are dependents of veterans receiving the benefit, which can be transferred to qualifying family members.
At Radford University, 299 students, including 80 veterans, are attending under the benefit, according to school spokesman Joe Carpenter.
All would be affected by the cutoff, which until now has not affected universities much. Although federal funding is important to universities and severe cuts could have disastrous affects over the long haul, Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said last week that no furloughs, hour reductions or other spending cuts had been necessary so far at the school.
GI Bill tuition payments, which are made to institutions at the beginning of each semester, will not be affected on Nov. 1. But the monthly living allowance paid directly to the veterans and dependents enrolled in college will cease at that point if the shutdown continues.
On Oct. 9, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress that his department would be forced to cut off disability, pension, compensation and education claims to 5.18 million veterans, surviving spouses and children on Nov. 1.
Of that number, about 500,000 students nationwide receive GI Bill benefits and would have their living expenses stipend cut off. Websites and call centers that normally provide information and services to veterans and their dependents have also been shut down or have limited functionality, leaving questions unanswered.
The educational living expenses stipend is market-based by area of the country, according to the U.S. Department of Defense website. In the Roanoke region, which includes Blacksburg and Radford, the monthly stipend for student veterans is $1,056. For veteran dependents, the stipend is $792.
The benefit is paid only while students are enrolled in classes, and ceases during breaks from school. That limitation alone can require careful management of finances. But the cutoff of benefits during a school year can have serious consequences.
After four years in the Marine Corps, including two deployments to Iraq, John Pretz said he transferred to Tech in 2012 from Northern Virginia Community College to get a bachelor’s degree in business management.
The 25-year-old veteran is working as hard and fast as he can to finish his degree, while his wife, Jessica, works full time at a local hotel to help support their 16-month-old daughter, Lillie. If the living expenses stipend is cut off arbitrarily, Pretz said he doesn’t know where they will find money to pay their rent.
“Right now it [the stipend] is very important to us, just primarily because my wife, although she works full time, her wage is low,” Pretz said by phone Tuesday from downtown Blacksburg. Pretz said he was spending time with his daughter at the Blacksburg Farmers Market while waiting for his wife to finish a job interview that if successful could help boost their finances.
Meanwhile, Pretz said he’s been looking into nonprofit organizations that might help the family bridge the widening gap if the stipend is cut off next month.
“We’re on a very tight budget. We have rent; we have bills. All of that adds up,” Pretz said. “We get help from our parents, but they can only do so much.”
Jessica Pretz’ father is furloughed from his job right now, and John Pretz said his mother is living on fixed retirement savings.
“The GI Bill is a lot, and it helps. It’s a huge factor in our personal finances,” Pretz said of his family.
But Pretz said he is lucky, as some people are willing to help if he loses his benefits.
“We have very gracious and understanding landlords. When the shutdown was looming, I notified them that we may be late on our rent because I’m not sure if I’m going to get my benefits,” he said.
The landlords said they could give the family some time.
But if the benefits stop indefinitely, “we have to find some way to pay them.”
Pretz said he’s also been looking at getting a job. But if he does that, the family will have to pay for day care for Lillie.
“Day care is $140 a week in this area. It wouldn’t be worth it for me to work. It’s probably better for me to stay in school and get a loan to pay back later,” Pretz said. “That way I finish my degree as soon as I can, rather than keep dragging it out.”
Pretz said he doesn’t follow politics much because neither party is serving the needs of the country. He has been following the shutdown headlines because it may directly affect his family.
But like a Marine, he’s looking for ways to complete the mission despite setbacks.
“The government is going to do what they are going to do. It’s directly affecting me,” Pretz said. “It’s frustrating, but you kind of just got to roll with the punches.
“Pretty soon Congress will pull their heads out of their a--,” he said.
Other vets, like Eric Hodges, who has exhausted his GI Bill benefits, expressed frustration .
“We have a government that out of one side of their mouths is saying they want to support veterans, and out of the other sides of their mouths are taking away the benefits,” said Hodges, a former Marine working on a doctoral degree at Tech.
Hodges has been a member of Veterans at Virginia Tech for several years. He is helping the organization coordinate with similar groups across the state to put pressure on Congress to end the threat of a GI Bill benefit cutoff.
“A bunch of people are having the rug pulled out from under them,” Hodges said. “It’s just really frustrating. We’re going to try to do something. It’s obvious to me somebody needs to put some fire under these guys.”