Recent changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, signed into law on January 4, 2011, represent major improvements and new opportunities to thousands of Veterans. The benefits provided by this legislation will enable and motivate many to attend college. But for one group of students, the changes leave them anxiously wondering if they can complete the degree programs they have already started.
Today, the Post-9/11 GI Bill pays all tuition and fees for active duty students. Starting August 1st, the Post-9/11 GI Bill will pay all in-state tuition and fees at public schools and up to $17,500 per year at private schools. Active duty students at public schools should see little or no change. However, the $17,500 annual tuition limit is significantly less than what active duty students enrolled at many private universities receive today. The changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill leave active duty students currently enrolled at private universities such as Georgetown, George Washington and Johns Hopkins doubting their ability to find the resources required to finish their education.
There was no doubt about Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits when these students applied. The students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill thoughtfully picked their college and program with spouses and supervisors a year or more ago with balanced consideration of family, finances, career timing, and the benefits that the GI Bill provided. The Post-9/11 GI Bill enabled many active duty students to attend college. Surprisingly, the changes signed last month establishing the tuition cap failed to include a grandfather clause. Now some are at risk of being unable to achieve their educational goals.
Active duty students currently enrolled at private universities who rely on the Post-9/11 GI Bill are left with a dilemma. With the tuition cap looming, these students must decide whether to take on unplanned debt through student loans, transfer to public universities delaying completion by a year or more, or withdraw altogether.
Schools and Veterans groups must reach out to find out how many are affected. In my Executive MBA class at Georgetown, for example, seven of my 54 classmates (13 percent) are serving on active duty. Each uses the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay tuition. Almost halfway through our graduate program, each of us must decide how (or whether) to pay the estimated $29,000 in tuition and fees beyond what the GI Bill will cover in academic year 2011-2012. One classmate knows he cannot delay his education because he will be transferred back to sea duty soon after our projected graduation in 2012. Another may not be able to afford tuition and might need to withdraw mid-way through the program—a waste of the funds the government has already contributed. The benefit that originally inspired and enabled them to pursue a Georgetown MBA has become a source of anxiety.
How many active duty students attending private universities around the country face these same difficult decisions? It is not easy to tell because in the rush to pass the changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, no one asked.
Veterans groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., the American Legion, the Military Officers Association of America, and the Student Veterans of America must step forward and advocate to increase the tuition cap and grandfather current students from decreases in benefits. They should also advocate for active duty participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which allows universities to fund the amount of tuition that exceeds the GI Bill benefit with a match from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Furthermore, veterans groups should reflect on how the 2010 rush to advocate GI Bill changes—without a clear understanding or consideration of the impact on active duty personnel—appears from an active duty membership perspective.
Private universities must determine how changes will affect current and future students and carefully consider how Yellow Ribbon funding will be allocated for the next academic year. If schools get it wrong, they risk leaving Veterans unable to complete their studies. If schools get it right, they will produce proud and loyal alumni who deeply appreciate and personalize the commitment made to them.
Private universities wishing to compete for Veteran and active duty students cannot rely on rankings and reputations to sustain their competitive advantage. Universities that value the experience Veterans bring to the classroom will now compete with universities that were not previously direct competitors. For example, a student considering an Executive MBA at Georgetown is likely to look more closely at the same program at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business knowing that the latest Post-9/11 GI Bill will now fully cover Darden’s higher tuition while paying just one third of Georgetown’s.
Lastly, Congress and the President can make the most immediate and definitive impact by grandfathering enrolled active duty students. President Obama, in his State of the Union speech emphasized the competitive value of innovation and education: “To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American.” Ironically, changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill take an education already firmly in the grasp of some active duty students and threaten to put it out of reach. Grandfathering active duty students will keep some of our most competitive Americans in the classroom, knowing that tomorrow they will be leading our wardrooms and boardrooms.
Commander Herb Carmen is an active duty naval aviator on the Navy staff. He is a graduate student and class representative in the Executive MBA program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He commanded Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 116 and was a Senior Military Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, Georgetown University or any other agency.