WASHINGTON — Another round of changes to the GI Bill could jeopardize the entire college tuition program, Veterans Affairs officials warned Congress this week.

Education specialists from the department are panning pending legislation designed to counter a perceived flaw in the previous round of changes and help student veterans who soon could owe thousands of dollars in unpaid tuition.

Lawmakers insist the measure could help as many as 30,000 veterans. But Keith Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said that the changes would force claims workers to go back to manual processing of GI Bill payouts, a situation which caused massive delays and confusion when the college tuition program underwent a massive overhaul in 2009.

“This will negatively impact our ability to deliver timely benefits during the crucial fall enrollment period,” he said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

Undaunted, House lawmakers advanced the legislation on Thursday, saying they will work with VA officials to ease the potential problems but still believe that the fixes must become law.

At issue are changes Congress passed to the post-9/11 GI Bill rules late last year that put a $17,500 cap on tuition and fees for student attending private or out-of-state public universities.

Previously, students received payments equal to the most expensive public university in their home state. That led to wide disparities for veterans based on where they were from: Students in Texas could get more than $47,000 in tuition last semester, while those from Arkansas were limited to about $7,000.

The $17,500 cap, set to go into effect this August, would end those differences. But students already attending classes at some pricey colleges and receiving more than that in tuition assistance will be suddenly left with bigger tuition bills than they had anticipated.

Veterans groups initially backed the fixes but have since urged lawmakers to pass a grandfather clause allowing those students to receive their current tuition payouts, making sure they can complete their college courses.

The bill advanced Thursday, sponsored by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would keep all student veterans already enrolled in classes at their current 2011 tuition levels until graduation. Committee members called the proposal an important step for student veterans’ futures.

But Wilson said VA administrators are still finalizing automated systems for GI Bill payouts, and another massive revamp on top of the December changes would jeopardize the entire system.

Wilson also testified to the committee earlier this week that the way the bill would pay for the grandfathered tuition rates — by holding housing stipends for all students flat for two years — could have a detrimental impact on students anticipating those cost-of-living boosts.

On Thursday, veterans committee member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., acknowledged the department’s concerns and said lawmakers will work closely to ensure the tuition payouts are not disrupted. But, he added, the fixes need to be made.

Similar legislation is pending in the Senate, but lawmakers face a tight deadline to pass either measure. If no law is passed, the $17,500 cap will go into effect in less than three months.

Twitter: @LeoShane

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