Private colleges balk at new GI Bill

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

Days before a June 15 deadline, 521 private colleges had signed modest-to-grand “Yellow Ribbon” agreements under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit, making these higher-priced schools more affordable to at least some Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans who qualify for admission.

But more than half of private colleges nationwide apparently will balk at entering Yellow Ribbon deals, at least for the 2009-2010 academic year.

The final tally could disappoint veterans who hoped to see their new GI Bill entitlement enhanced by Yellow Ribbon deals enough to attend their school of choice from among America’s most prestigious names.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student veterans still will get that opportunity this fall at schools like Dartmouth College, Columbia University, George Washington University and Georgetown to name just a few schools that have signed or will sign Yellow Ribbon deals. But many big-name schools have decided not to offer special discounts to veterans this year.

Tony Pals, information director for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, estimates about 400 private, non-profit schools out of 954 represented by NAICU would have entered Yellow Ribbon agreements by the mid-month deadline.

Reasons being cited for the 60 percent taking a pass are the impact of the economic crisis on school budgets, the complexity of Yellow Ribbon rules and the new GI Bill, and administrative challenges faced by schools trying to keep pace with VA’s “fast tracking” of the plan to comply with the law.

“This all has led to a fair amount of confusion and quite a few questions, some of which we’re still trying to get answers to,” Pals said.

Given the challenges, Pals added, “we’re pleased that as many schools have been able to sign up as we’ve seen.”

Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said he too “is pleased” by the number of Yellow Ribbon agreements signed as the deadline approached. The original deadline was May 15 but many schools said they needed more time.

Wilson said he and other VA officials won’t try to judge whether participation levels is “good or bad” because the VA historically hasn’t tracked tuition and fees closely enough to know how many private schools aren’t even eligible for Yellow Ribbon deals because their costs will be fully covered by the new Post-9/11 benefit.

That number would seem to be small, given that private schools on average have set tuition rates four times higher than public universities. But Wilson’s point allows VA officials the comfort of neutrality on the sensitive matter of whether enough private schools are reaching out to help veterans.

The new GI Bill will cover tuition and fees at any degree-granting school, up to levels charged by the most expensive public university in a state. Texas students, for example, will get up to $1,333 per credit hour plus $12,130 a year for school fees. In contrast, California students will be reimbursed only for up to $6,587 in fees, and no tuition is reimbursable because tuition is free at California public colleges to in-state students.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: milupdate@aol.com