The new GI Bill approved by Congress last week and expected to be signed into law by President Bush soon assures young veterans a chance at a free four-year degree, starting August 2009.

Spouses and children will see benefits, too. Reservists will see more money for college. Even vets who got out years ago could get a free college education.

The plan, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., was designed to match the free-college tuition pledge under the GI Bill of Rights approved after World War II. At that time, returning troops received enough to pay for a four-year degree plus reasonable housing and living expenses while they were in school.

But critics of the current system said officials are still using decades-old education prices that haven’t kept pace with the price of those degrees, making it unlikely that veterans can get a degree without loans or other financial aid.

The new benefit is tied to the price of the most expensive public college in a servicemember’s home state, plus an additional housing and living expenses based on regional averages.

Now as those costs rise, so will the amount veterans can be compensated.

The new benefit won’t go into effect until August 2009; the legislation gives veterans affairs officials a year to set repayment formulas and procedures. But veterans already in college will see a 20 percent boost in their current benefit this semester, in anticipation of the larger payouts next year.

For everyone else, here’s what to expect:

For active-duty troopsThe bill gets rid of the current enrollment requirements, replacing them with language mandating at least three months’ service in the military since Sept. 11, 2001, for partial GI Bill benefits.

Anyone who has served at least three years on active duty since then is eligible for four years of tuition costs at their home state’s universities, plus about another $1,000 monthly for housing and living expenses.

Each year, the veterans will also be eligible for $1,200 in tutoring services and $1,000 more to cover books. Altogether, the benefit could top more than $25,000 a year in the most expensive states.

If troops or veterans attend state schools that are less expensive, they won’t get to pocket the difference. If they decide to go to a private school or out-of-state college, they’ll have to cover the difference between their higher tuition bill and the state-assigned reimbursement figure.

The benefit lasts for 15 years now, instead of 10, giving troops extra time after leaving the military to either use their benefit or pass it along.

For spouses and dependentsUnder a provision backed by the Pentagon, troops who served at least 10 years on active duty will be able to transfer their benefit to a spouse or dependent child. Spouses can receive the money even sooner, if their servicemember has served at least six years and agrees to another four-year contract.

The transferred benefit only covers the cost of tuition, not the living stipend and extra cash for books. But beyond that the same rules apply: The measure promises a full four years of college bills at the most expensive in-state school, or any less expensive university.

Families can divide the benefit up however it benefits them most, as long as they don’t exceed those 36 months of college classes. For example, a retired soldier can use two years of benefits to pay for a two-year degree program, then transfer the last two years to a spouse or child.

And for long-serving servicemembers, the changes mean that their college-age children could get a free college education starting fall 2009, provided they attend a state-backed school.

For reservists and veteransGuardsmen and reservists who served at least three years on active duty in the past seven years automatically qualify for the full tuition benefit just like other troops. Those who served less active time, but at least three months, will receive between 40 and 90 percent of the tuition benefit, based on a sliding scale.

But more importantly, the benefit can be used within 15 years of their separation from the service, instead of the current requirement that they remain in the Guard or Reserve to receive the money.

For those veterans who have already used their GI Bill benefits, the changes don’t offer any new money. Many of the most vocal supporters of the bill, veterans upset over how little they received for college, acknowledged the changes will help the next generation of young servicemembers more than themselves.

But veterans who have not yet used up their education benefits, or those who never signed up for the GI Bill when they were serving, can take advantage of the new rules.

As long as they served at least three years after Sept. 11, 2001, they’re eligible for the same free tuition.

Still have questions?Have a question about what the new GI Bill changes could mean for you? E-mail us at, and we’ll post questions and answers here.

Most expensive, state by state

See a state-by-state list of the most expensive public colleges and an estimate of what veterans’ individual benefits could be here.

GI Bill by the numbers

$9,901:Current maximum benefit for yearly tuition and housing

$6,185:Average cost in tuition alone in 2008 at U.S. four-year public colleges

$23,712:Average cost in tuition alone in 2008 at U.S. four-year private colleges

$16,676:Average estimated tuition and housing benefit for 2009 under the new plan

$12,554:Lowest estimated tuition and housing benefit for 2009 under the new plan (Wyoming)

$22,094:Highest estimated tuition and housing benefit for 2009 under the new plan (Michigan)

Source: College Board, Senate

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