President Obama signed into law the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010 in January. Known as the new GI Bill, it was designed to improve and streamline educational benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
The new bill modified specific provisions of a previous version of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that went into effect on Aug. 1, 2009, according to Jim Becker, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The changes are scheduled to take effect over the coming year.
"I think that [the new GI Bill] is a significant improvement to benefits," said Tim Battle, lead education services specialist for the Army Education Center at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Fort Myer, Va. Beginning Aug. 1, 2011, the new law will extend a housing stipend to students taking online classes, according to the VA website.
"One of the more significant provisions of the new GI Bill is that the student stipend, which until now only applied to in-seat students, will apply to online students ... except online students will get half [of the full] stipend," said Bob Larned, executive director of military education for ECPI College of Technology, which has a campus in Manassas, Va.
The bill also allows veterans to transfer unused benefits to their spouses and children and places restrictions on unaccredited institutions, according to a statement by the VA.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill replaced the Montgomery GI Bill, in effect since 1984, but did not revoke it. Therefore, members who qualify for both bills may elect to continue using the old program if they feel it provides them with superior benefits. However, once they elect to use new GI Bill benefits, they cannot reverse that decision later, according to the VA website.
One reason soldiers may elect to keep their old-bill benefits is so they can attend vocational school. The old bill was approved for apprenticeships, trade schools, flight lessons and other vocational training, but the new bill restricts these payments. Post-9/11 GI Bill funds must go toward classes that would lead to associate, or higher, degrees at accredited institutions, according to GIBill.com, a website dedicated to GI Bill issues.
There are other reasons why members may choose to stay under the old bill, according to Battle. "Texas veterans get free in-state tuition," he said, also noting the current reimbursement amount of $1,426 for a full-time student may exceed the basic allowance for housing amount.
GI Bill benefits are offered in addition to tuition assistance benefits that active-duty members receive under the Armed Forces Tuition Assistance program, according to Battle.
"You don't have to separate from the military before you use the GI Bill, but most active-duty personnel choose to use [tuition assistance]," said Larned.
Based on in-state tuition costs for the most expensive public institution in one's home state (or, in some cases, district or territory), the maximum value of GI Bill benefits varies (see sidebar). Maryland has the 15th-highest maximum benefit level, while only Guam's rate is lower than that of the District of Columbia, according to the VA website.
"The same [tuition] limits apply whether the classes are taken online or in seat," explained Larned. Tuition and fees are paid directly to schools each term, according to the VA website.
New GI Bill funds can be used to pay tuition at private colleges and universities. This new provision has created a windfall for dozens of private schools that cater to active and retired military personnel, according to Larned.
"We've seen about a 30 percent increase in the number of military-benefit-eligible students that go to our schools since the new GI Bill," said Larned.
Another provision of the new bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program, has further helped private institutions attract GI Bill students. According to GIBill.com, participating institutions with tuition and fees higher than the GI Bill maximum can agree to waive half of those additional fees and the VA will pick up the other half with no additional charge to the veteran's entitlement.
Essentially, this means the VA will pay three quarters of the full fees on behalf of the veteran as long as the institution will accept that amount in lieu of full payment. Many private universities and colleges have opted into the Yellow Ribbon Program. This program may be applied to out-of-state public institutions as well, providing maximum flexibility to veterans.
Minimum service requirements under the new GI Bill have been substantially reduced so that National Guard troops activated over the past decade can qualify. Whereas members used to have to serve two years before becoming eligible, they now must have either 90 aggregate days of active-duty service or 30 continuous days' service and a service-connected disability. However, benefit levels start at 40 percent of the maximum and increase to 100 percent as a service member's active-duty tenure lengthens, according to the VA website.
Also under the new GI Bill, the benefit period is extended to 15 years and participants pay no enrollment fees. Before, the period was 10 years and participants had to pay $100 per month for the first 12 months, according to GIBill.com.
Battle remains a champion of soldiers bettering themselves while in uniform and afterward. "My point of view as a prior service individual is that [the GI Bill and tuition assistance are some] of the more tangible benefits that soldiers have after leaving the service. The acquisition of a degree can make [the] transition to civilian life much easier," he said.