With new GI Bill, a surge of veterans at colleges

More than 100,000 veterans have already been approved under the bill taking effect Saturday. Are campuses prepared?

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Anthony Brooks, a former Army corporal planning to attend USC as a pre-med in the fall under the new GI Bill, comments about his education future at his home in Santa Clarita, Calif. on June 25, 2009.

With provisions not only for tuition, but books and living expenses as well, waves of veterans are expected to jump at the chance to earn undergraduate or advanced degrees as the new Post-9/11 GI Bill kicks in Saturday.

Already, 112,000 have had their eligibility for benefits approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It represents the first time since the original GI Bill where affordability is very unlikely to be a barrier as they seek the college of their choice," says Jim Selbe, who manages military programs for the American Council on Education (ACE), a higher education association in Washington.

The new GI Bill will help veteran Don Gomez complete a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern studies at City College of New York. Since 2006, after serving in Iraq in the Army, he's been using less-generous benefits under the previous system.

"If this [new law] had not passed, I would be without benefits in October and I would have to find a way [to bridge the time] until I graduate [in May], so this is like a lifeline," he says. Under the new bill, Mr. Gomez qualifies for 12 more months of tuition and living expenses.

For colleges, the coming school year will test "whether or not they are prepared for this influx," Mr. Selbe says. A first-of-its-kind national survey released this month by ACE and several partners revealed both strengths and weaknesses in campus efforts to assist service members.

Of 723 colleges and universities that responded, 57 percent provide services specifically for military personnel and veterans. Among those, 79 percent have a policy for refunding tuition when someone is deployed. But only 22 percent have a way to expedite re-enrollment, a number that ACE officials hope will go up quickly.

Another major issue for veterans is credit for military and occupational training. In the survey, 81 percent of schools that offer services for military students do grant such credit. But veterans have reported trouble navigating the process, and "the No. 1 source of disappointment" is to receive less credit than they believe they deserve, Selbe says.

Clubs where vets can connect on campus are also important, but only 32 percent of the schools with special services have such groups. Just 40 percent provide training to help faculty understand how best to assist veterans.

Awareness is growing on college campuses that "the vets are here to stay, and like any nontraditional student, they have ... unique situations," says John Mikelson, director of distance learning for Student Veterans of America, which has chapters at 184 campuses and five online institutions.

As with any new legislation, there may be kinks to work out in its implementation, says the law's principal champion, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, but to him the important point is that "we're going to be giving a lot of people ... the same chance at a first-class future that the people from World War II had."

Click here to see who qualifies under this bill.

[Editor's note: The summary to the original version overstated the number of veterans who have already been approved under the bill.]


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