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New GI Bill: Vets from Iraq and Afghan wars to flood Minnesota colleges

A flood of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is heading for Minnesota colleges thanks, in part, to a generous benefits package from the federal government and a strong statewide support network.

A flood of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is heading for Minnesota colleges thanks, in part, to a generous benefits package from the federal government and a strong statewide support network. The number of Minnesota veterans seeking eligibility for the newly expanded GI Bill benefits has already exceeded the total for all of last year.  If the trend continues it would mean Minnesota far outpaces the 20 to 30 percent increase in veteran higher education students nationwide that federal veterans officials initially predicted.

“If early response from people needing information and help with the program is any indication, Minnesota will have double the number of veterans” applying for the federal education funds this year, said Don Pfeffer, a counselor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd and the director of the Higher Education Veterans Programs for the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

All last year, Pfeffer’s office helped about 5,200 veterans apply for higher education benefits.  This year, the office topped that number by June. “We’re extremely busy right now,” he said.

Veterans are clearly tuned into the new benefits, he said, but it’s too early to know whether the increase comes from the additional aid or because there are simply more veterans home from the Middle East conflicts ready to launch into a new opportunity.

What’s being called the Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most significant boost in veterans benefits since the Montgomery GI Bill was established following World War II. The expanded educational benefit, known as Chapter 33, promises eligible veterans the equivalent of in-state tuition for four years at a publicly supported institution of higher learning. It also provides a monthly housing stipend and $1,000 a year for books and supplies.

For the first time, the benefit can be transferred to a veteran’s spouse or dependents. Before this month, the most veterans could hope for from the GI Bill amounted to about half of the cost of a college education after adding together tuition, fees, books and housing.

“They’re offering a whole lot more money than the [previous] GI Bill,” said Joy Wise, who runs the veterans Upward Bound program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. It’s the only such program in the state and helps prepare veterans for the academic and logistical rigors of post-secondary classes. It’s free for veterans and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

“Enrollment in the program is on the high end,” she said, which is an indication the new GI Bill is the catalyst for a new, expanded crop of veterans headed to the classroom.  The semester-long, pre-college class typically starts the year with about a dozen students and adds more as time goes on. This year, Wise said, as many as 20 students will show up Aug. 24, the first day of classes.

The maximum amount of funds available for veterans varies by state and is based on the highest tuition rate at a public college. As it turns out, that benchmark is set not by the University of Minnesota, as one might expect. A program at St. Paul College has a higher per-credit cost than any other in the state.  The highest payout for a Minnesota veteran attending college is $1,321 a month. Other programs help veterans cover part of the additional cost if they choose a private college.

‘Tremendous strides in Minnesota’
In Minnesota, the $78 billion federal program gets an additional boost following a multi-year effort at the state Legislature to invest in veterans support. Among other things, the state funds have enabled a network of veterans-support offices on various campuses. The offices provide expert help for potential students navigating the famously bureaucratic federal Veterans Administration process. The support is in stark contrast to the reception for Vietnam War veterans. They were mostly shunned on college campuses that had become incubators for anti-war activism.  Even so, the recent efforts in Minnesota have become a model for other states.

“We’ve seen tremendous strides in Minnesota. There’s nothing else operationally in other states that even comes close,” said Pfeffer, who came to his job a little more than three years ago after a statewide legislative push to increase support for veterans. “The Legislature has been very veteran-friendly.”

That doesn’t mean there are no glitches, however.

“We’re getting a mixed response, to be honest,” said Kevin Ferriby, the GI Bill program manager for the Minnesota National Guard.

He said it’s a very generous program for those who qualify. But the requirements put the full tuition deal out of reach for many of the veterans he sees. “Most of our Guard members are not eligible at 100 percent,” he said, because they fall just short of the 36-month active duty cut off.

They can claim a percentage of the education benefit, but many times it makes more sense for the veteran to apply under the previous GI Bill. “It’s a very individual and complex decision,” he said. Most Guard members qualify at the 60 percent level, he said.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national advocacy organization, estimates about 10 percent of veterans nationwide — which include those who serve in the National Guard, reserve and military active duty — would actually see a reduction in benefits if they move from the existing program to the new GI Bill.

Ferriby said many Minnesota Guard members have expressed specific interest in the new provision that allows spouses and children take advantage of the tuition reimbursement.

Another problem stems from the nationwide popularity of the benefit combined with the already burdened national VA bureaucracy. The St. Louis, Mo., processing center — which approves or declines every application in Minnesota and other Midwestern states — has a heavy back-log.

The VA has received about 150,000 applications nationwide. It takes months before potential students get official word that they’re eligible for the tuition help.  As is the case with the previous GI Bill process, notification from the VA will very likely show up long after the first tuition and book payments come due. Fortunately, for veterans, Minnesota institutions have adjusted and will postpone payment for those who can show proof they’ve applied for the aid.

But the lag in notification makes detailed financial planning difficult for some students. Not every veteran who has requested eligibility plans to enroll and the tuition benefit lasts 15 years from the time of the veteran’s last date of active duty.

Online education rules
The new GI Bill also does not extend the monthly housing stipend to students who utilize mostly online classes. While deployed, many students serving thousands of miles from the gates of their home colleges became comfortable attending classes online. Now that they’re back, they won’t be able to collect a big portion of what’s offered if they don’t show up in person in a traditional classroom for more than half of their credits. It’s a discrepancy that mostly online institutions such as Minneapolis-based Capella University argued unsuccessfully to change.

Still, as complicated and as limiting as the new GI Bill is, it’s a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark economic and political climate for public higher education.  State-supported education systems are struggling with diminished federal grant and loan opportunities. Earlier this summer, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system watched as Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut tens of millions of dollars from their budgets with a stroke of a pen. The “unallotment” of higher education money came after Pawlenty and state legislators failed to reach agreement during the legislative session on how best to fill a multi-billion dollar budget hole.
After World War II, the original GI Bill helped an entire generation of returning service men and women further their potential and secure the financial assets they needed to put a long and deadly conflict behind them. The newly expanded GI Bill — benefiting a much smaller portion of the population that volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan — offers nowhere near the same society-wide boost. But its supporters say it goes a long way toward expressing a nation’s gratitude to the individuals who served their country in remote and dangerous parts of the world.

Art Hughes is freelance journalist living in Minneapolis who writes about poverty, demographics and cultural issues.