Days before a June 15 deadline, 521 private colleges had signed modest-to-grand “Yellow Ribbon” agreements under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit, making these higher-priced schools more affordable to at least some Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans who qualify for admission.

But more than half of private colleges nationwide apparently will balk at entering Yellow Ribbon deals, at least for the 2009-2010 academic year.

The final tally could disappoint veterans who hoped to see their new GI Bill entitlement enhancedby Yellow Ribbon deals enough to attend their school of choice from among America’s most prestigious names.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student veterans still will get that opportunity this fall at schools like Dartmouth College, Columbia University, George Washington University and Georgetown to name just a few schools that have signed or will sign Yellow Ribbon deals. But many big name schools have decided not to offer special discounts to veterans this year.

Tony Pals, information director for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, estimates that about 400 private, non-profit schools out 954 represented by NAICU will enter Yellow Ribbon agreements by the mid-month deadline.

Reasons being cited for the 60 percent taking a pass are the impact of the economic crisis on school budgets, the complexity of Yellow Ribbon rules and the new GI Bill, and administrative challenges faced by school trying to keep pace with VA’s “fast tracking” of the plan to comply with the law.

“This all has led to a fair amount of confusion and quite a few questions, some of which we’re still trying to get answers to,” Pals said.

Given the challenges, Pals added, “we’re pleased that as many schools have been able to sign up as we’ve seen.”

Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said he too “is pleased” by the number of Yellow Ribbon agreements signed as the deadline approached. The original deadline was May 15 but many schools said they needed more time.

Wilson said he and other VA officials won’t try to judge whether participation levels is “good or bad” because the VA historically hasn’t tracked tuition and fees closely enough to know how many private schools aren’t even eligible for Yellow Ribbon deals because their costs will be fully covered by the new Post-9/11 benefit.

That number would seem to be small, given that private schools on average have set tuition rates four times higher than public universities. But Wilson’s point allows VA officials the comfort of neutrality on the sensitive matter of whether enough private schools are reaching out to help veterans.

The new GI Bill will cover tuition and fees at any degree-granting school, up to levels charged by the most expensive public university in a state. Texas students, for example, will get up to $1333 per credit hour plus $12,130 a year for school fees. In contrast, California students will be reimbursed only for up to $6587 in fees, and no tuition is reimbursable because tuition is free at California public colleges to in-state students.

Post-9/11 GI Bill students also will get a monthly living allowance, equal to local basic-allowance-for-housing rate for enlisted grade E-5, plus up to $1,000 a year to buy books and school supplies.

But many private colleges charge far more than the most expensive state university. So, under the Yellow Ribbon program, schools are encouraged to waive up to 50 percent of this difference, and VA will match the amount waived by adding the value of the student’s education benefit.

By June 10th, Wilson said, VA had 1287 signed agreements with 521 schools. Larger schools are signing multiple agreements, one for each college or for each campus it operates. For-profit institutions like Troy University have many locations and account for many agreements. ITT Technical Institute, with locations in nearly every state, has more than 100 Yellow Ribbon deals. One of every 10 agreements signed involve a public university using the program to help veterans with the higher cost of graduate programs or out-of-state veterans with higher out-of-state tuition.

Sen. John Warner of Virginia, in his final year in Congress, pressed to include the Yellow Ribbon feature as condition for endorsing a new GI Bill that otherwise was designed only to cover the full cost of state-run colleges.

Warner wanted at least some of today’s veterans to have an all-expenses-paid shot at America’s finest universities, just as Warner and millions of other veterans had following World War II.

His effort will secure that dream for some veterans. But it’s also hard to see how the initiative, with its limitations and heavy reliance on the goodwill of schools, can avoid creating some bitterness among have- and have-not veterans on private college campuses. Many schools that have signed deals intend to waive only a small amount of higher charges. Other schools will waive thousands of dollars but for small numbers of students.

Warner’s alma mater, Washington & Lee University, will waive $15,778 for five lucky veterans in its undergraduate programs and five more in the school’s graduate degree programs. And VA will add a matching amount.

But any other Post-9/11 veteran at Washington & Lee presumably will have to cover themselves the $31,556-a-year cost in excess of their education benefit. The vast majority of Virginia student veterans will get a maximum of $313 per credit hour and $3660 a year in college fees.

VA rules mandate that waivers be offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and they cannot be offered only to students in select fields of study within a school or only to students with the highest grade point averages.

Warner might have wanted a WWII-era GI Bill but the benefit passed remains something far different for most students able to use it. It’s a plan,, Wilson said, that “draws a distinction between public and private education.”

More on Yellow Ribbon, including the list of participating schools, can be found at:

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