Officials look to revamp GI Bill

Senior officials at the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense have joined veterans’ groups and representatives of academia to endorse a comprehensive bill from Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) to reform the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Still to be determined is how to pay for the many provisions in the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010 (S 3447) with estimated costs seen as high but still to be calculated, and alarms sounding across government over soaring budget deficits.

One of the more costly provisions of S 3447 would expand the new GI Bill beyond covering college courses to any type of training that veterans might want, from vocational schools and apprenticeships to flight instruction. Post-9/11 vets who currently take non-degree courses must make an irreversible decision to use their less generous Montgomery GI Bill benefit.

Another Akaka provision would make National Guard members eligible for the new GI Bill based on time spent on active duty through Title 32 call-ups for domestic emergencies or homeland security missions, or to serve fulltime under the Active Guard and Reserve (AGR) program.

A third key provision of S. 3447 would eliminate what Akaka described as “a complicated, confusing and, in some cases, inequitable calculation of State-by-State tuition and fee caps” for setting Post-9/11] benefits. A simplified system still would ensure that vets in degree programs at public institutions anywhere in the U.S. pay little, if any, out of pocket costs. For those enrolled in private or foreign colleges, tuition and fees payments would match the lessor of actual college charges or of a national tuition-and-fee cap. The cap would be the average of tuition and fees across both public and private institutions for the most recent academic year.

Advocates for students, for college and university administrators and for VA education advisers endorsed this and most other provisions in the Akaka bill. Two other important parts would:

• Provide for a modified living allowance to vets seeking degrees solely through online or distance learning if at more than the half-time rate. They would get 50 percent of the allowance payable to resident students.

• Provide enrolled Post-9/11 students still on active duty, or their enrolled spouses, the book allowance of up to $1,000 annually.

In reviewing details of S. 3447, Keith M. Wilson, director of VA’s education service, said over and over that his department would support or “not oppose” this or that provision on condition that “appropriate and acceptable PAYGO offsets” are identified to cover the added costs.

PAYGO refers to pay-as-you-go provisions in Senate and House budget rules which means that any increase in spending on new entitlements be offset by lowered spending on other mandatory spending accounts. The rules can be ignored, as they were to pass the Post-9/11 GI bill. But Wilson’s frequent reference to the PAYGO hurdle made clear that the Obama administration’s support for GI Bill reform is conditional.

Akaka said it was “vital” to put the “streamlining and operational improvements in place as soon as possible.” But he also stressed the need to control GI Bill fraud and abuse, and to ensure that “only programs offering legitimate education and training are approved for benefits.”