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Army Times
By Rick Maze - [email protected]
June 30, 2008

Lawmakers have approved some of the most significant improvements to the GI Bill since its inception during World War II, an expansion of benefits that will enable new generations of veterans — and for the first time, family members — to fully cover the costs of obtaining a college degree.

The sweeping package is designed to pay for tuition and fees, books and living expenses — and let career troops transfer those benefits to spouses and children. It also is cost-free — service members no longer must pay to buy into the GI Bill.

In a deal that ends months of bickering about whether better college benefits would help or hurt the military, White House officials and key lawmakers agreed on a compromise, with a new “GI Bill for the 21st Century” that will offer a benefit worth an average of $80,000 — double the current value.
The new benefit would pay up to the in-state rate for tuition and fees for the most expensive four-year public college or university in the state where a veteran attends school.

In addition to the bigger basic benefit, initially expected to average $1,450 a month, the program promises a monthly living expense equal to the military's basic allowance for housing for an E-5 with dependents, which averages $1,100; a $1,000 annual book allowance; and up to $1,200 for tutors.

The package also allows up to $2,000 to be paid one time for a licensing or certification test.
Service members also will get more time to use their enhanced benefits — up to 15 years after separation, five more than under current law.

The improved GI Bill will restore the eroded purchasing power the benefit had when it was initially passed. Originally called the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, it too was hotly debated before being approved. It is considered one of the most effective pieces of federal legislation ever enacted, and the education benefits are credited with more widely opening college to members of the working class.

The House of Representatives approved the war funding bill June 19. The Senate was expected to follow suit the week of June 23. Benefits increases take effect as soon as the war funding bill is signed into law by President Bush, but veterans now in school will not get the higher amounts right away because lawmakers are giving the Veterans Affairs Department until Aug. 1, 2009, to calculate and pay amounts that will vary by state and by school. Retroactive payments will have to be made to the date Bush signs the bill.

Also, anyone who had not previously enrolled in the GI Bill will have to wait until Aug. 1, 2009, to collect any payments.

Free enrollment

GI Bill enrollment, which currently requires active-duty members to pay a $1,200 fee over their first year of service, changes completely.
The fee ends immediately. This includes an end to any remaining $100 monthly installments for people who are in the process of paying the enrollment fee. People who have paid the entire $1,200 contribution but have not used all their GI Bill benefits will receive a refund of sorts, with $1,200 added as a final payment when they exhaust their standard 36 months of benefits.

Senior defense personnel officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they are not completely pleased with the compromise because the increased benefits are generous enough to make some service members more likely to leave the military to attend college rather than stay in for a career.

Transferring benefits

The opportunity for career personnel to transfer benefits to family members was included in the package as a compromise to mitigate some of those concerns.
Under the transfer option, active-duty, National Guard and reserve members with six years of service could transfer their full GI Bill benefits to their spouses after agreeing to serve at least four more years. A service member would have to complete 10 years of service before being allowed to transfer benefits to children.

No transfer rights would be available until regulations are issued by the Pentagon.

Defense officials insisted on transfer rights to provide a way to encourage people to remain in the military. But some lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the architect of the new GI Bill, worry that such a program forces service members to choose between attending college for themselves or paying for college for their families.

One detractor, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., chairwoman of the House Veterans' Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee, said she intends to closely watch how the transfer benefits are used.
“I really would have preferred that we study this first, not after we approved it, but we are still going to have oversight,” she said.

Expanded eligibility

The plan will extend the full active-duty GI Bill benefit to people who do not ordinarily qualify for it, after they serve three months or more of cumulative active service. This includes Guard and reserve members, service academy and ROTC scholarship students now ineligible for benefits, and career service members who joined the military before the Montgomery GI Bill took effect in 1986.

This provision, retroactive to cover service since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, will give them a percentage of active-duty GI Bill benefits based on their cumulative service. They receive 40 percent of the full monthly benefit after three months of service; 50 percent after six months; 60 percent after a year; 70 percent after 18 months; 80 percent after two years; 90 percent after 30 months and 100 percent after three years.

For Guard and reserve members who have not been mobilized, the bill also includes a 20 percent increase in Montgomery GI Bill — Selected Reserve benefits.

A long fight

Webb, the chief champion of the package, said he is proud that Congress and the Bush administration have agreed to update education benefits to a level that is on par with the historic wartime benefits provided after World War II.

But Webb said he is not ready to declare victory. “When President Bush signs the bill, I will be a happy man,” he said in an interview. “It has been seven years since the 9/11 attacks, and the operating tempo and strain on the troops has not diminished. It is long past time to do this.”

One of many veterans groups that has backed Webb is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has complained to Congress that the current maximum $1,101-a-month GI Bill benefit does not come close to covering college costs.

“Service members across the country are thrilled that lawmakers are putting their partisan differences aside and taking this major step to help create a new ‘greatest generation,'” IAVA Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff said.
“It is crucial that Congress and the president continue to work together to see this through.”


• Basic benefits: Initial average of $1,450 a month; actual payments will cover full tuition and fees up to the cost of the highest in-state tuition for a four-year public college or university in each state. Amount will increase each year based on increases in tuition costs.
• Housing stipend: A monthly payment equal to the local basic allowance for housing for an E-5 with dependents, for those with three or more years on active duty. The current allowance averages more than $1,100 a month.
• Books and equipment: Up to $1,000 a year for full-time students.
• Tutoring: Up to $100 a month, with a maximum total payment of $1,200.
• Licensing or certification test: One-time payment of up to $2,000.
• Reserve benefits: Would increase by 20 percent. The current full-time monthly reserve rate of $317 would rise to $380.

• More time: Active-duty members have 15 years after separation to use benefits, up from the current 10.
• Transfer benefits: Service members with six years of service who promise to serve four more can transfer full benefits to spouses. Members who serve 10 years can transfer benefits to children.
• No enrollment fee: $1,200 member contribution eliminated.

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