Feds, academics endorse new GI Bill

Senior officials at the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense have joined veterans groups and representatives of academia to endorse a comprehensive bill from Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, to reform the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Still to be determined is how to pay for the many provisions in the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010 with estimated costs seen as high but still to be calculated, and alarms sounding across government over soaring budget deficits.

Akaka, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, added cautious remarks of his own at a hearing Wednesday on his bill, describing it only as a “starting point for discussion about needed changes.”

One of the more costly provisions of the legislation would expand the new GI Bill beyond covering college courses to any type of training that veterans might want, from vocational schools and apprenticeships to flight instruction. Post-9/11 vets who currently take non-degree courses must make an irreversible decision to use their less generous Montgomery GI Bill benefit.

Another Akaka provision would make National Guard members eligible for the new GI Bill based on time spent on active duty through Title 32 call-ups for domestic emergencies or homeland security missions, or to serve fulltime under the Active Guard and Reserve program.

Guard members activated under this authority since 9-11 were overlooked for Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility in 2008 in the scramble to shape and pass a final bill. Last year, by Guard estimates, the oversight had denied more than 75,000 Army Guard and 2,500 Air Guard members access to the best veterans’ education benefit since World War II. Even more Guard members would qualify today given recent call ups for the oil disaster and border security.

A third key provision of Akaka’s bill would eliminate what he described as “a complicated, confusing and, in some cases, inequitable calculation of State-by-State tuition and fee caps” for setting Post-9/11 benefits. A simplified system still would ensure that vets in degree programs at public institutions anywhere in the U.S. pay little, if any, out of pocket costs. For those enrolled in private or foreign colleges, tuition and fees payments would match the lessor of actual college charges or of a national tuition-and-fee cap. The cap would be the average of tuition and fees across both public and private institutions for the most recent academic year.

Advocates for students, for college and university administators and for VA education advisers endorsed this and most other provisions in the Akaka bill. Two other important parts would:

— Provide for a modified living allowance to vets seeking degrees solely through online or distance learning if at more than the half-time rate. They would get 50 percent of the allowance payable to resident students.

— Provide enrolled Post-9/11 students still on active duty, or their enrolled spouses, the book allowance of up to $1,000 annually.

In reviewing details of the bill, Keith M. Wilson, director of VA’s education service, said over and over that his department would support or “not oppose” it.

Akaka said it was “vital” to put the “streamlining and operational improvements in place as soon as possible.” But he also stressed the need to control GI Bill fraud and abuse, and to ensure that “only programs offering legitimate education and training are approved for benefits.”

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