Post-9/11 GI Bill gives military veterans a better chance at college
The Department of Veterans Affairs will start a new program that will provide more money for college than in the past, making higher education an enticing option for vets.
By Matt Chittum
College would have been a mistake for Bland Sigmon back when he graduated from Danville's George Washington High School in 2000.
He was just too immature, too undisciplined.
So while his sweetheart and future wife went off to George Mason University, Sigmon answered a call to serve his country.
He joined the Navy and sailed the world in submarines, tracking friends and foes on a sonar screen until 2004.
The resident of the Bonsack area of Roanoke County has a good job as a senior manager at a Lowe's store now, but lately he's been pondering whether it's time to finally chase that college degree himself.
His pondering ended with a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs announcing the start of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill. The rich new program, whose benefits became available starting Aug. 1, is providing more money for college than past GI Bills, making higher education an enticing option for vets such as Sigmon. Increasing numbers of them -- and their spouses and children -- are signing up.
The program was born of a bill introduced by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., on his first day in office in 2007, and carries an estimated 10-year cost of $51 billion. It passed with a House vote of 416 to 12, and a Senate vote of 92 to 6.
Americans serving in the military since Sept. 11, 2001, deserved a "proper wartime GI Bill," Webb said when the bill was signed into law in June 2008.
To Sigmon, "It was just one more sign that it was time to go, another nudge to say ... get this done."
Sigmon, 26, starts classes at Virginia Western Community College this month, and he's part of a significant increase in interest from veterans at the Roanoke school.
The number of students on veterans benefits enrolled at VWCC will likely hit about 250 this fall, said Michele Hilts, the school's veterans benefits specialists. While the Roanoke area doesn't have a large population of vets, that number is up 30 percent from two years ago, Hilts said.
The older Montgomery GI Bill, which is still available, pays a fixed amount of up to $1,321 per month, and service members pay $1,200 into it while they serve.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is available to vets who served on active duty after the 2001 terrorist attacks, requires no pay-in. It pays for tuition amounts equal to each state's most expensive public college tuition, plus fee amounts equal to each state's maximum, and also up to $1,000 for books and a housing allowance that varies by location.
The benefits last up to 36 months of college enrollment, as under the older bill, but they are paid directly to the college. That means vets don't have to have money up front or wait for reimbursement.
Sigmon enlisted before 9/11, but because he served three years after 9/11, he's eligible for the maximum benefit under the new program. In Virginia, that gets him up to $3,840 per semester for tuition at a public college, and $326 per semester in fees.
That's "wonderful," Sigmon said, but he was quick to add that he'd gladly give up those benefits if it meant the tragedy for which the new program is named and what has followed it never happened.
But the new benefits aren't necessarily the best fit for everyone, Hilts said, and that can be confusing.
A conversation with a student about veterans benefits that used to take five minutes now takes 20, she said. Some students who don't qualify for the full benefits under the new program find they're better off staying with the Montgomery program. Some might get less under the new program but choose it anyway because they don't have to have their own money to get started.
"I'm getting a pretty good mix," Hilts said. "A lot of people are sticking with Montgomery while they're here, then changing when they transfer to another college."
Besides choosing between VA programs, veterans now have private schools and graduate school among their options. The GI Bill was always applicable to private school tuition, but with the higher prices of private schools and some grad programs, the money didn't go very far.
Along with the new GI Bill, the VA created a "Yellow Ribbon Program" under which private schools can elect to cover up to half of the difference between what the Post-9/11 GI Bill pays and the total cost of their tuition. The VA then will match their contribution.
The Yellow Ribbon Program "certainly does make a private college attractive to them [veterans] in new ways," said Brenda Poggendorf, vice president for enrollment at Roanoke College. The school is offering $10,631 per year to an unlimited number of students as part of the program. Tuition at Roanoke is $28,734 for the coming school year.
So far, only a couple of veterans have inquired about coming to Roanoke College this fall, Poggendorf said. "I think people are just beginning to become aware of it."
Hollins University, which typically has a half-dozen students enrolled with VA benefits, isn't seeing much action from veterans yet, either, but the school plans a marketing push to reach out to veterans.
Participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program helps the school diversify its population with different kinds of life experiences among students, said Anna Goodwin, university registrar. And while the university will put up $9,200 per year for up to 100 veterans under the program, Hollins gets the financial benefit of knowing that the rest of the $27,550 in undergraduate tuition is guaranteed.
National College, which has campuses in 25 cities and five states, has a history of being friendly to veterans by offering a number of grants for students with military service. But the Salem campus isn't seeing much of a bump in veterans yet, either.
"It's going to depend on what happens with the military," said Ron Smith, director of admissions. As the number of troops overseas is reduced, Smith said, colleges are likely to see more veterans.
"We're expecting to see more spouses and dependents participating," Smith added.
That scenario is already playing out at Virginia Tech, said Assistant Registrar Linda Mihalik.
"The ones we're getting the most calls about are the dependents," she said. In some cases, the benefits are being divided among multiple dependents of the veteran. As with the Montgomery GI Bill for active duty service members, the benefits can be transferred to the veteran's spouse or children. But doing so requires the veteran to re-enlist for at least four years.
Virginia Tech typically has about 250 students on VA benefits at a time, Mihalik said, but they're anticipating at least a 10 percent increase this fall.
Sigmon's son, Ian, is not yet 2, and his wife, Natalie, already has her degree.
But setting an example for Ian and catching up with Natalie are part of what motivates him.
"I want to beat her grade point average," he said.
But it's been a long time since he was in school, which became startlingly clear when he took his placement tests at VWCC. "Can I still do this? Do I still know anything?" he asked himself. He did fine.
He'll start his mostly Internet-based general education classes soon, with plans to earn a four-year degree and work as either a teacher or in health care. Working mostly at home will require that discipline he knew he lacked as an 18-year-old. He figures life in the Navy set him up for success.
"I certainly hope so," he said. "We'll find out soon enough, won't we?"