Veteran groups push for overhaul of GI Bill
WASHINGTON — Eric Hillerman left the Marines in 2000 to a college education courtesy of the Montgomery GI Bill. He graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree and a mountain of debt.
“I worked part time, I competed for financial aid, I was awarded a sizable scholarship, and yet I’m still paying on my student loans until 2014,” he said.
The military education benefit covered less than half his college costs, he said. “And I went to a very affordable in-state institution in Utah. I can tell you, the cost of living in Utah is dramatically different than Washington, D.C., and New York and Chicago.”
Hillerman, now deputy director of legislative affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was among several veterans groups on Capitol Hill this week lobbying for an overhaul of the military’s higher education benefit.
On Wednesday, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., announced plans to reintroduce his measure to provide full education costs for troops attending state universities, and provide them with a $1,000 monthly stipend.
He said those changes, expected to cost about $2 billion to fund, would make the 2008 benefit more equal to what troops returning from World War II received when the college program was first introduced.
“This is a no-brainer for the United States government to reward service in a way that is commensurate to the service that was given,” Webb said.
According to the National Center for Education statistics, the average cost for tuition, room and board, and other fees at in-state universities topped $11,350 in 2005. Last year, the maximum payout available under the GI bill was just under $10,000.
Webb’s measure would fund veterans’ education up to the full price of tuition and related costs at the most expensive public university, a figure that tops $20,000 in many states.
Army veteran Luke Stalcup, a student at Columbia University in New York and co-founder of Student Veterans of America, said the move would mean fewer part-time jobs and college loans for most of his group’s members.
“This is the top issue for us,” he said. “Right now, we just don’t have a benefit that works.”
Webb and several Senate co-sponsors dismissed concerns about the $2 billion cost of the program, saying that lawmakers can find the money in the existing budget if they make veterans’ education a priority.
Webb’s bill also would extend the time frame in which veterans can use the tuition payments, from the current 10-year window to 15 years, and expand benefits offered to certain guardsmen and reservists.
Only servicemembers who spent at least two years on active duty since September 2001 would be eligible for the new benefits, not those who left the service earlier.
The Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee held hearings on Webb’s original bill last spring, but the legislation has stalled since then. Hillerman said the veterans groups hope the re-introduction will build new political momentum on the issue.
“This is a GI bill that will compel [servicemembers] to be the poets, philosophers, politicians, teachers, police officers, leaders of business and industry and science that we’ve seen from previous generations,” he said. “We’re asking that lawmakers do that for a new generation.”