By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, 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.
Georgetown committed more than $2 million, with differing levels of aid from different schools. Eligible undergraduates on the main campus would get $1,000 on top of their need-based financial aid, for example, and up to 75 of those at the School of Continuing Studies would get a $13,400 benefit.
GWU estimated that it would spend $2.5 million this coming year for about 360 veterans. That is about $18,000 per undergraduate veteran and $3,800 for graduate students, matched by the VA.
The university's students pushed officials to make a major commitment, but the program is also a symbol of the school's long-standing commitment to serving veterans, said Robert Chernak, senior vice president: The very first recipient of the original GI Bill went to GWU.
Many schools have been increasing support for returning soldiers, trying to ease the often-rocky transition from combat to class. Beyond the money, the real challenge for university officials will be deciding what support veterans need and how to develop it, said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity.
Veterans have very different issues from traditional students, said Brian Hawthorne, who leads a group of fellow veterans at GWU and spent last year working overnight shifts at the hospital to help pay for his first year at the school. They are often juggling young families, jobs, injuries that might make it tough to get around campus or more difficult to learn, and emotional scars from combat.
And after years of barracks and tents, they often do not want to share dorm rooms with 17-year-olds. Several students at GWU said they are relieved that the GI bill provides money for housing.
Graham Platner, who served in Iraq with the Marine Corps, said his best friends at GWU are veterans. When he talks to other freshmen, he said, "I don't feel like I'm 24 with them. I feel like I'm 30 or 40.
"I'm this gruff, heavily tattooed former Marine," he said. "They're these little 18-year-olds." He laughed. "I'm almost as scared of them as they are of me."
Platner said he had a tough time adjusting to school after serving in Iraq. It was hard to work toward a long-term goal -- a college degree -- instead of immediate, crucial missions. "To make matters worse, my old unit deployed to Afghanistan in October," he said.
Sitting in art history class, it is a lot easier to remember why he didn't go to college right out of high school in Maine than why he is there now.
But he realized that he needed to go to college if he wanted to pursue his plan of a foreign policy career.
"The Marine Corps wasn't going to teach me Arabic," he said. "I really felt to truly understand what we were doing on the ground level, I should go to school. I think education is the most important thing out there, especially the kinds of wars we're fighting now."
Last year, he had to scramble to pay for college. This year, the GI Bill is paying his way.
"College is free now, even at GW," Platner said. "It's great -- a weight is lifted. It's night and day."