New GI Bill forces vets to make some tough decisionsby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
A recent congressional overhaul of the GI Bill has some student veterans perplexed. Starting next August, the $62 billion, Post-9/11 GI Bill will provide a boost in education funding for veterans who served in the military since September 11th, 2001. But for vets already in school, choosing between the new GI Bill or staying with the old one, is a complicated decision.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Alex Schluender spent more than six years in the military. In 1999 the Duluth native attended Army language school and mastered Arabic. In 2004 he was deployed to Iraq for a year where he compiled classified intelligence for Army leaders.
Schluender's time in the Army is now putting him through school. He's an arts student at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus and gets a GI Bill check every month.
"This year it's $1,500," he says.
That amount covers Schluender's annual $9,000 dollar tuition bill, leaving him with a few thousand dollars for living expenses.
But Schluender figures he'll fare better under the new GI Bill, which goes into effect next August. For the five months he'll have left of GI Bill benefits, the new bill will not only pay his full tuition, it will also give him about $1,300 dollars a month for housing expenses, and $1,000 dollars a year for books and supplies.
"I think the new money almost affords a living wage addition to the tuition, so going to school would be like working. I see people being able to get out and spend 36 months at a university as their job."
Both bills offer 36 months of benefits, or the equivalent of four years of school.
But it turns out the new GI Bill may not be the best choice for all veterans. In fact the traditional Montgomery GI Bill isn't going away.
Although for veterans just getting out of the service, the new bill may be the best choice.
"It is an improvement as a whole but it's not necessarily going to be the right fit for all veterans," according to David Schrader, a regional coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans already in college face a choice, Shrader says. Do they stick with the old GI Bill or switch to the new one?
"It adds another decision they have to make. The old GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill isn't going away. Which is good, but it adds another decision they have to make, another layer of issues that they kind of have to sort out."
Here's something many vets are sorting out now. The new GI Bill will mean more money for most veterans attending college. So, some are considering opting out of the GI Bill money they're eligible for now, and taking out loans to pay their tuition. The idea is they'll be able to pay off their loans next year, and have money left over because of the more generous Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Carin Anderson is hearing from student veterans considering that option. But Anderson, the senior veterans coordinator at the University of Minnesota, wants student veterans to think it over first.
"I encourage all of them to really look into what they're doing before they make any decisions. If they're going to hold off using benefits and try to take out loans, just encourage them to really weigh their options before they decide not to use their benefits for a year."
Another reason for student veterans to be cautious is because the details of the new GI Bill are still being worked out by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Anderson says.
That's what engineering student Chad Johnson has kept in mind as he's considered his options. Johnson is junior at Minnesota State University-Mankato and a veteran of the Navy.
"There really is no official word of what you'll be getting so it's kind of a toss up. Do I wait for something? I don't even know what's going to happen, or if it's going to be less benefits."
Johnson figures he'll get more money for school under the new GI Bill. But he plans to stay with the old one. In part, because the new GI Bill won't pay for the pricey engineer license exams he'll have to take in the future, something the old bill will cover.
VA officials say they understand the confusion surrounding the choices student veterans face. But they say since the old GI Bill isn't going away, veterans will have more flexibility in finding college funding.
The VA is doing its best to get information out to veterans on how to navigate GI Bill funding, according to Keith Wilson, director of the VA's education service. The VA has set up a phone hotline for veterans, and is constantly updating the GI Bill Website when new details are made available, Wilson says.
"This is one of, if not the top, priorities in VA right now. We know how important it is for veterans and we're going to do what's need to make sure we're delivering benefits on time."
The VA doesn't have much time to get that done. Currently it's developing its own system to get the GI Bill money, both new and old, out to students and schools by August 1st of next year.
- Morning Edition, 10/17/2008, 7:40 a.m.