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Editorial: Veterans deserve an easier time obtaining valued education benefit

Jan. 07, 2013 @ 10:55 PM

The confusion and troubles associated with a change in the way the federal government now administers the GI Bill to veterans seeking a higher education are becoming evident. Many veterans who, in the words of one former Army sergeant paid for the expected benefits "with blood and sweat and tears and deployments," appear to be short-changed by the country they served.

It shouldn't be that way.

In adjustments made to the GI Bill after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the federal government said it would pick up the full in-state cost for any honorably discharged service member to attend a public college or university. The rules were such that the Department of Veterans Affairs would cover up to the highest rate charged for in-state students at a public school in a given state.

But changes effective in August 2011 altered that picture. While veterans can now receive up to $17,500 a year for study at private schools, the agency will pay only "the actual net cost for in-state tuition and fees assessed" by the public institution the veteran is attending, according to a report by The Associated Press.

That poses a couple of problems. While veterans could get up to $17,500 a year to attend a private school, those who attend public schools generally receive far lower benefits. In addition, it became even more important for veterans to qualify as in-state students to avoid paying higher non-resident rates. Yet for many veterans, who usually are stationed in several states during their military careers, it has become quite difficult to establish a "permanent" residence in one state. The issue is complicated because complex rules governing residency differ from state to state, and even within university systems in the same state, the AP reported.

To their credit, many states have made it easier for veterans to qualify for in-state status. Nine have passed legislation to offer in-state tuition rates for veterans, regardless of how long they've lived there, according to Student Veterans of America, and five other states are considering a similar step.

Even the federal government recognizes the issue, with its own Yellow Ribbon Program. That is a part of the GI Bill under which a participating school and the VA agree to split the difference between the resident and nonresident rate. However, limited money has been appropriated to that program.

However, unless all states are on board in allowing a leveling of educational benefits under the GI Bill, many veterans still will face a difficult time. The federal government may have to step in to help make the program more uniform, either by boosting funding for the Yellow Ribbon Program or taking other action.

One possibility is the proposed Veterans Education Equity Act, which would extend to public institutions the $17,500 tuition cap now allowed for private colleges and universities. That didn't pass Congress last year, but its proponents say they will try again this year.

Americans who sign up to serve in the U.S. military in essence say they are willing to give their lives to defend their country. After providing military service, they shouldn't face such difficulties in obtaining one of the most valued benefits of making that commitment -- an education.

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