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Post-9/11 G.I. Bill could mean cost-free college for Soldiers, families

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Feb. 12, 2009) -- A full ride to college is on the way for qualified Soldiers and veterans.

The "Post-9/11 Veteran's Education Assistance Act Of 2008," sometimes called the "Post-9/11 G.I. Bill," paves the way for thousands of qualified Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen Marines and military veterans to get a complete four-year degree at no cost to themselves.

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Soldiers and veterans can begin applying for benefits under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill beginning Aug. 1. Benefits from the program can be paid out for a total of 36 months. Under a typical degree program, where students attend school for nine months at a time and are then off during the summer months, the plan would allow veterans to get a four-year degree while attending school in residence.

"We've moved from a program that pays in essence a flat rate to individuals, to a program that is based on what it is actually costing an individual to go to college," said Keith Wilson, director of education services for Veteran's Affairs.

Under the Montgomery G.I. Bill program, the VA sent out individual checks to recipients, and recipients used the money any way they saw fit: for tuition, housing, food, etc., Wilson said. But the payment was not based on how much their tuition cost.

"It was up to the individual to come up with whatever additional money they needed to go to school, if any." Wilson said.

The new program changes all that. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, Wilson said, pays for tuition by sending payments directly to the school. It also pays for student housing by sending a payment to the student. An additional payment for books and supplies also goes directly to the student.

With the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, a Soldier may be entitled to tuition payments equal to the cost of the most expensive public, undergraduate, in-state tuition and fees in his or her home state. For instance: a student learns that the most expensive public state school in the state of their home of record costs $1,250 for a semester of courses. If the student opts to attend a private school instead, that school will receive up to $1,250 a semester for tuition.

"Potentially, a student can get up to the full cost of tuition for the school they attend," Wilson said.

Tuition is not the only benefit extended to potential college-goers. For students attending school more than half the time, the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill also pays housing costs, up to a rate equivalent to the Basic Allowance for Housing rate for an E-5 with dependents in the ZIP code where the school is located.

If a student attends school in Charlotte, N.C, for instance, the BAH rate in the area for an E-5 with dependants is $1,179. The student would then receive that much money for rent each month -- even if he or she has no dependents.

Students are also entitled to a yearly stipend of up to $1,000 to cover the cost of books and supplies, and students from highly rural areas who are transferring to a school may also be entitled to a one-time payment of $500.

Soldiers on active duty may tap in to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and apply benefits toward tuition. However, active-duty Soldiers are not entitled to receive the housing allowance from the program, nor the books and supplies stipend.

Perhaps one of the best-known benefits of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is the ability to transfer the benefits to one's dependents.

"For a lot of folks, that's a key issue," Wilson said of the change. "That section of the bill was specifically designed as a retention tool. And it is set up for those individuals who have served 6 years in the Armed Forces and agree to serve an additional period of service after Aug. 1, 2009."

The details of who may transfer benefits to their family members, however, are being set by the military services, not the Veterans Administration. That policy has not yet been determined.

Unlike the MGIB, which required Soldiers to pay up to $1,200 to participate, the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill requires no such payment. All Soldiers who served after Sept. 11, 2001 may qualify for some or all of the benefits, depending on how long they served. Additionally, the program also serves National Guard and Reserve servicemembers, depending on how much time they were mobilized for active duty.

"There are different tiers of benefit payment, depending on how much active service you have," Wilson said, "How many months of active service you have after 9/11. The lowest level is for those that have between 90 days and six months of active service after 9/11."

"The percentages go on up until you reach the point where you have 36 months of active duty -- and those individuals qualify for 100 percent of everything," Wilson said.

Soldiers who invested in the MGIB by paying the $1,200 buy-in for the program, and who elect to participate in the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, will be refunded a proportional amount of their buy-in, after all entitlement under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is used.

Those who do not use all their entitlement under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, do not receive a refund of their MGIB buy-in. Additionally, those who paid into the $600 MGIB "buy-up" program, which increased the benefits under MGIB, will not receive a refund for that money.

Wilson said that the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is not the only game in town for Soldiers. There are other programs the VA still administers that can help Soldiers get their education, including the MGIB (active duty), the MGIB (selective reserve), and the Reserve Educational Assistance Program. About 400,000 individuals were taking advantage of those programs in fiscal year 2008.

"VA's previous programs are still available," he said. "They are still in existence, it is just that we have a fourth program we are administering now. Individuals do need to clearly understand their educational goals as well as understand all available programs to ensure they make the best use of their educational opportunities. For many people, they are going to receive a higher benefit under this program than they would have received in the other programs that we still continue to administer. Potentially, a lot more people will find college affordable."

Wilson said it is important to understand the new program may not be the program best suited for an individual's needs. Such factors as type of training and availability of other educational assistance are important factors to consider before deciding which program to use, he said.

There are limits on what kinds of education a student can get with the benefits of the new Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. For instance, the benefits can only be used for graduate and undergraduate degrees, and vocational/technical training. And all training must be taken at an institute of higher learning.

"The new program does not cover all the kinds of training the older programs do," Wilson said. "For instance, on-the-job training, apprenticeship training, or flight training -- those types of things are only covered under the MGIB, not the new program."

Benefits under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill can be used for all levels of degree programs, however. The program allows Soldiers to earn a second degree, a master's degree or even a doctorate. About 8 percent of the MGIB beneficiaries use the program toward graduate training, Wilson said.

Soldiers or veterans who bought into the MGIB and who have already tapped into that program can still transfer the remainder of their benefits to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill program, Wilson said. Both programs offer 36 months of "eligibility," which means that a Soldier or veteran can draw benefits for 36 months from one program or the other.

"If I use 30 months under program A (MGIB), I can transition to program B (the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill) and get six months of coverage there," Wilson said.

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