Veteran education benefits up in the air with new bill

Proposed benefits for USC veterans

Proposed benefits for USC veterans

After holding out hope that officials in Washington, D.C. could fix a semantic glitch in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, USC decided at the eleventh hour to offer tuition benefits to veterans enrolling as undergraduates or as graduates in the School of Social Work and the Rossier School of Education through a new program.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill promises to cover veterans’ tuition costs at a private college as high as the maximum in-state tuition. In California, however, the Department of Veterans Affairs determined the maximum tuition is $0, because California schools use the term “fee” instead.

“The state of California has a proud history of not charging tuition — they charge fees instead. So [veterans] are entitled to a $0 benefit,” said Jennifer Grodsky, executive director of USC’s Office of Federal Relations. “It’s really unfortunate. We’re being penalized for our good policy of having no tuition.”

The difference in wording led schools and members of Congress to challenge the VA’s interpretation, but the VA has refused to amend the problem.

“Right now California vets are really getting the short end of the stick,” said Katharine Harrington, dean of admission and financial aid at USC. “The VA was unwilling to amend the language when it was pointed out to them that they had made a mistake and so there’s some arm-wrestling going on and it appears that it will continue to go on.”

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has introduced legislation aimed to change the interpretation. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the VA endorsed by other members of the House, and California Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have also sent letters to the VA.

Thompson’s letter calls on the VA to resolve the problem as soon as possible, saying “the denial of benefits to [veterans] due to word choice is unacceptable and will have real consequences on the effectiveness and success of the overall program.”

The VA had promised to get a response to the Senate, but no answer has come yet, Grodsky said.

The continuing process of fighting the VA’s interpretation in Washington led many California schools — USC included — to sit on the sidelines and not apply to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an enhancement to the Post-9/11 GI Bill that allows schools to offer a set amount of tuition benefits to veterans, which the VA will match dollar-for-dollar.

“We didn’t want to hurt California’s bargaining power in Washington over the change that absolutely has to be made so that veterans going to school in California are treated fairly,” Harrington said.

In the end, USC decided to apply for the Yellow Ribbon Program. Pending approval by the VA, USC will offer 20 undergraduate veterans grants of $2,500 and 10 graduate students at both the School of Social Work and the Rossier School of Education grants of $10,000 — amounts that will be matched by the VA.

Harrington said USC made the decision to join the program after consulting officials in Washington. USC’s undergraduate tuition benefits are similar to those being offered by other California private schools, including Stanford.

“We wanted to keep our participation modest at this point because frankly there’s still a lot of moving parts,” Harrington said.

Despite the school’s “modest” participation in the program, Harrington said a lot of veterans’ tuition expenses are covered by financial aid. In the spring, 101 of the 111 veterans at USC received a grant from the school, and the average undergraduate grant was $39,000, while the average graduate grant was $18,000.

Still, veterans at USC said relying on financial aid does not offer the same certainty the Yellow Ribbon Program does and could deter veterans from USC and other California schools

These veterans said they are excited by the promises made by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but are disappointed by the VA’s refusal to fix California’s base tuition and by the lack of participation by other USC graduate schools.

“Any school that isn’t participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program is really just hurting themselves and they’re robbing themselves of great students,” said Chris Roessner, a graduate student studying cinema-television production. Roessner also got his undergraduate education at USC after serving in Iraq from 2003-2004.

Roessner added that even though the School of Cinematic Arts is not participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program, the new GI Bill will still pay for his rent through a part of the bill that covers fees.

Scott Lowe, a senior majoring in accounting, served as an infantry Sergeant in the Army from 2002-2006. Lowe said he understands why California schools are hesitant to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, but hopes that more schools will come on board in the future.

“It is a great program for veterans and schools,” Lowe wrote in an e-mail. “The VA would match every dollar that the school contributed for each veteran. That would save the school half of my grants. I hope that as they see how the Yellow Ribbon Program pans out, that USC will opt to participate in the future.”

Lowe hopes to earn his MBA from USC, but said this is less likely if Marshall does not join the Yellow Ribbon Program or if the “tuition” versus “fee” difference is not fixed.

“I’m considering pursuing a master’s degree in the future, and if this problem isn’t fixed, I will be much less likely to attend USC, and I’d be looking to go back east where the costs of an MBA would be covered,” he wrote.

Grodsky said many of USC’s graduate schools may have chosen not to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program because of the uncertainty surrounding it.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions about the program so it was hard for schools to choose whether it made sense to participate,” Grodsky said. “I think after this first year we’ll have a better sense of what’s happening.”

Roessner said he hopes all of USC’s schools will adopt the program.

“I love the college to death and would never go anywhere else, so I hope they don’t disappoint me,” he said.