GI Bill Causes Glitch In D.C.

By Susan Kinzie, Washington Post - June 15, 2009

For many veterans, the ambitious new GI Bill is a great deal: The federal government will cover the cost of state universities and share the cost of more-expensive private colleges if the schools choose to fund scholarships to close that gap. That means many of the most selective schools, such as Harvard, are suddenly affordable.

But in Washington, the sweeping program brings an unintended glitch -- and a higher cost. The city's only public institution, the University of the District of Columbia, is one of the least-expensive colleges in the country for local students, and its tuition is the basis for the VA reimbursement rate for private colleges in the District.

Meanwhile, some of the city's private universities, including Georgetown and George Washington, are among the priciest in the country, with total costs of more than $50,000 a year. That makes for a bigger gap to fill.

By today's deadline, school officials must decide whether to take part in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' "Yellow Ribbon" program to close, or minimize, the gap. It's a tough call for some, because the economy has pinched university budgets so badly and because the costs are potentially tens of thousands a dollars a year for each student. Those costs could increase as more troops enter college after deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan and as the benefits are extended, in some cases, to children and spouses of service members.

School officials from several states, including California and Massachusetts, have grumbled about the details, said Ryan Gallucci of AMVETS, a veterans advocacy group. "If you're enrolled at Georgetown, or whatever, it's not really going to help," he said.

Indeed, for a student taking a typical number of credit hours at Georgetown, the VA benefit would cover less than $8,000 of the more than $38,000 undergraduate tuition. The VA would pick up some of the additional costs for books, housing and other expenses.

The federal benefits taking effect in August are not as sweeping as those that helped transform American society after World War II, when veterans could attend any school for free. But they are far more generous than what has been in place: a plan that required people to buy in with payments while enlisted. Veterans had to pay their tuition bills, rent and other costs upfront, apply for benefits each month, prove that they were still enrolled and wait to be reimbursed. The payments covered about half the national average cost of tuition, room and board. Many just couldn't swing it.

Under the new law, the VA will cover up to the cost of the most expensive in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, along with books and living expenses, for veterans who have served a certain length of time on active duty since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It will pay the same amount toward tuition at a private school in the same state.

In the District, schools are making a range of commitments.

Howard University is not participating this year but will monitor how the program works at other schools and decide whether to apply next year, a spokeswoman said. Catholic University will help up to 250 students in its Metropolitan School of Professional Studies, which focuses on adult learners. Trinity Washington University will support as many as 50 veterans this year with a grant of about $6,200 for each, about $310,000 total for the school.

At Gallaudet University, officials are limiting participation to 25 veterans and are developing programs to help people who became deaf or hard of hearing during combat adjust, said Robert Weinstock, special assistant to the provost.

American University will support up to 11 veterans the first year, increasing the number to 32 after four years.

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