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WASHINGTON — An Iraq war veteran living in Texarkana, Texas, could get more than $56,000 in tuition benefits under the GI Bill next year.

But if the same veteran lives a few miles east on the Arkansas side of the city, he’ll get only about $5,300 a year for his college education.

That’s according to preliminary numbers released by the Department of Veterans Affairs on what servicemembers should expect under the post-9/11 GI Bill, passed by Congress last summer.

Under the measure, lawmakers promised to cover tuition and fees at any public university for troops who have served at least three years on active duty since September 2001. But the amount of payout depends on a servicemember's home state and the costs of higher education there.

For state schools the difference is moot; veterans attending a public university won’t have any tuition bills, regardless of where they live. But those who take their benefits to a private college could see thousands less than veterans in states such as Texas, Michigan and New York.

Late last year, VA officials asked states to submit the most expensive rates per credit hour and the highest fee rate per semester at public colleges, to form the baseline for payouts when the new program starts this fall.

For many states that calculation was simple. In Arkansas, the most expensive state school is the University of Arkansas, which has a per-credit-hour cost next year of about $167 and fees of about $630 per semester. That totals about $2,630 for a typical 12-hour course load and nearly $5,300 for a full year of college.

But other states used more complex and lesser-known programs to calculate their rates.

Texas officials quoted a University of Texas at Austin pharmacy program for their highest per credit costs, at just over $1,300 per credit hour. And they cited a $12,130 fee for a specialized state-sponsored pilot school program for their other figure.

Together, the numbers mean more than $28,000 a semester in tuition and fees for Texas residents, and more than $56,000 for two 12-hour semesters of college.

So a veteran from Texas could theoretically attend a $50,000-per-year private college free of charge, while a veteran from Arkansas would have to pay almost $45,000 to go to the same school.

Keith Wilson, director of education services for the VA, acknowledged the wide discrepancy between states, but said the goal was to make sure all veterans would be covered by the legislative promise.

"What we have to take into account is the manner in which education is delivered in the 21st Century," he said. "We see situations where students may be attending more than one school, or where courses are counted differently.

"If we don’t account for those situations, these veterans could end up having to pay out-of-pocket."

But Patrick Campbell, legislative council for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said instead the preliminary figures have created a confusing inequity among veterans.

IAVA is petitioning lawmakers to put a $13,000 per semester cap on all benefits; That would provide equal money to veterans attending public universities and still guarantee enough money to pay for costs at any state school nationwide, Campbell said.

"We want to make this simple," he said. "It would provide certainty for veterans and for the schools in the amount of money they could get."

Wilson emphasized the latest numbers are only preliminary figures. Final numbers will be made public sometime this spring, months before the Aug. 1 deadline for the new GI Bill program to begin making payouts.

The VA’s tuition and fees chart does not include the new housing stipend — equivalent to the BAH of a single E-5 living in the same zip code as the college — or the yearly $1,000 books and supplies stipend available under the new program.


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