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Troops returning from war face social and financial challenges while trying to adjust to college, despite GI benefits

Vets in school
By Jean Cowden Moore, Ventura County Star
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Photos by Joseph A. Garcia / Star staff "The GI Bill helped pay for school, but it didn't pay for everything," says veteran Tim Mauricio, attending a lecture at Ventura College, said. "I have to work just to survive."

New GI Bill
In the next few weeks, Congress is expected to vote on a bill that would expand education benefits for veterans making the transition to college.

The original GI Bill, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, provided tuition, books and cost-of-living stipends for veterans returning from World War II. Today's benefits provide up to $39,600 for college tuition and fees only, about two-thirds of the average tuition and fees at a four-year public college or university. Books and room and board are not covered.

Under the expanded GI Bill, veterans who have served at least three months of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, would receive the following:

  • Upfront tuition payments to any public or private university. Those payments would be capped at the cost of attending the most expensive in-state public university.

  • Monthly stipends that help cover students' cost of living. The average monthly stipend in California would be $1,449.

  • Allowances for books and supplies, $1,000 a year in California.

  • Fifteen years to use their benefits, rather than the current 10. The bill also would allow reservists who serve several tours to count their total time served, rather than the length of the longest tour, to qualify for benefits.

In addition, veterans would no longer have to make a nonrefundable $1,200 contribution to their education.

Dennise Mauricio fixes the graduation robe of her husband, Tim Mauricio, before Ventura College's commencement Wednesday. He works as a security guard from midnight to 8:30 a.m.

Joseph A. Garcia / Star staff Dennise Mauricio, left, and her husband, Tim, attend a breakfast before Ventura College's commencement began Wednesday. He's hoping to get a job as a prison guard and continue studying criminal justice at CLU.

Tim Mauricio wanted to get a college education after enlisting in the Marine Corps right out of high school and then serving in Iraq.

So he signed up for his GI benefits and quickly realized it wasn't going to be enough to cover his tuition and living costs.

That's why Mauricio, like many veterans, is working full time while also going to school full time.

"The GI Bill helped pay for school, but it didn't pay for everything," said Mauricio, who is married and lives in Camarillo. "I have to work just to survive."

In the next few weeks, Congress is expected to vote on expanding the current GI Bill to give veterans additional money for college, including tuition and books as well as stipends for living costs.

In the meantime, Mauricio has been averaging about five hours of sleep a day during the week. He works as a security guard from midnight to 8:30 a.m. Before Wednesday's graduation, he also was heading off to classes at Ventura College, where he earned an associate degree in criminal justice.

It's a grueling schedule but not unusual for veterans making the transition to college after they've served in Iraq or Afghanistan, said Jim Selbe, director of program evaluations for the American Council on Education.

Benefits often are delayed
Veterans routinely face financial and social challenges adjusting to college, Selbe said. Their benefits often are delayed, making it difficult for them to pay for tuition and books at the start of the semester.

Then, once they start classes, they may find it hard to fit in, because they're older than traditional students, they often have families of their own, and they tend to be more conservative than their classmates, Selbe said.

"They're feeling isolated because they're very different from the 18- or 19-year-olds who come directly from high school," Selbe said. "They feel there's a certain bias toward veterans in the classroom. At the same time, we're finding that veterans can enrich campuses by their experience and maturity."

Terry Niebuhr, who started at CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo this semester, understands that sense of isolation and bias.

Niebuhr, 30, enlisted in the Navy right out of high school, served in the Persian Gulf, then decided to go to college.

He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he found no services available for veterans. Eventually, he dropped out, got a divorce, moved to California and tried again at Moorpark College, where he felt different from his younger classmates.

"There was this anti-war sentiment in a few classes," Niebuhr said. "I didn't want to say I was a service member. It seems like we've had more experience than kids fresh out of high school. It's harder to relate to other people."

Now that he's at CSUCI, Niebuhr is more comfortable, primarily because the college has more services for veterans, an effort he believes more colleges should make.

President Bush and the Pentagon, however, have opposed the GI Bill legislation, saying it would be too expensive. It would cost an estimated $51.8 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The current GI Bill, designed for peace-time service, provides a maximum of $39,600 for college tuition and fees, about two-thirds of the average tuition and fees over four years at a public university and far less than the average cost of attending a private school. There is no stipend for living costs or books.

Now, only about two-thirds of returning veterans use at least some of their education benefits, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Nearly a third don't use them at all.

"It's a cruel awakening when they look at the cost of education and compare it to the benefits they're entitled to," said Patrick Campbell, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a Camarillo High School graduate. "A lot of service members just can't make it."

Meanwhile, colleges nationwide are starting to develop services specifically for returning veterans.

'In the beginning stage'
The availability of those services, however, varies widely. That's why the American Council on Education plans to hold a summit next month for university and college presidents and chancellors, Selbe said.

"We need to bring these obstacles to their attention," he said. "College administrators often are unaware of what needs to be done to serve veterans."

Locally, most colleges have someone in their admissions or registrar's offices who knows how to deal with veterans' paperwork. Some have counselors trained specifically in working with veterans, but mostly they're using existing services and personnel and hoping eventually to offer more.

"We're in the beginning stage," said Janet Rizzoli, an articulation counselor who works with transfer students at CSUCI. "We're realizing they're coming, and we need to be ready for them. We have some services, and we're working on more."

Statewide, most public universities, including CSUCI, are working with the Troops to College program, aimed at encouraging more returning veterans to enroll at a California State University, University of California or community college campus.

Troops to College is creating support teams of administrators in counseling, admissions, financial aid and student services.

The teams are starting to receive training in working with veterans, said Chairman Bucky Peterson.

The program also is working to create student veterans organizations and to help veterans get credit for the schooling or experience they received in the service.

"We hope people see the value in these great kids," said Peterson, a retired Marine and former interim vice president at Sonoma State University. "They need for us to jump in and mentor them in the direction they want to go."

Minnesota is a leader in easing veterans' transition into college, Selbe said. Its university and college system, with 53 campuses, participates in the state's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program, which helps veterans ease back into civilian life.

'They have different needs'
Counselors and administrators have been trained in working with returning veterans. Most campuses have centers where veterans can gather to share experiences. And veterans waiting to receive benefits can postpone tuition payments without getting hit with late fees.

In offering those services, college officials are careful to separate veterans' issues from political issues, said Steve Frantz, system director of student affairs.

"People join (the military) for all kinds of reasons," Frantz said. "Ours is not to judge their reason. They're coming back, and they're our citizens, but they have different needs."

And what about Mauricio, the former Marine whose cell phone plays Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" while callers wait for him to pick up?

He's hoping to get a job as a prison guard and continue studying criminal justice at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

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