Private colleges sign on to new G.I. Bill benefit

Days before Monday’s deadline, 521 private colleges had signed agreements to make themselves more affordable under the new G.I. Bill benefit to at least some Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans who qualify for admission.

But more than half of the nation’s private colleges will balk at the deals, at least for the 2009-10 academic year.

The final tally could disappoint veterans who hoped to see their new G.I. Bill entitlement enhanced enough to attend their school of choice. Many big name colleges aren’t on the list. Still, 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.

Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said he was pleased by the number of agreements signed as the deadline approached. He said he and other VA officials won’t try to judge whether participation levels are “good or bad” because the VA historically hasn’t tracked tuition and fees closely enough to know how many private schools don’t need to reduce tuition costs because they’re already fully covered by the new G.I. Bill benefits.

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 G.I. 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 $1,333 per credit hour plus $12,130 a year for school fees. In contrast, California students will be reimbursed only for up to $6,587 in fees, and no tuition is reimbursable because tuition is free at California public colleges to in-state students.

New G.I. Bill students also will get a monthly living allowance, equal to the 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 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.

Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, in his final year in Congress, pressed to include the private school feature as condition for endorsing a new G.I. 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. VA rules mandate that fee waivers be offered on a first-come, first-served basis and that they cannot be offered just 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 G.I. 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 the program, including the list of participating schools, can be found at: www.gibill.va.gov/GI_Bill_Info/CH33/Yellow_ribbon.htm.

E-mail milupdate@aol.com.

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