Cap-and-trade school 

Military veterans currently in college on a GI Bill: Heads up. Some of your government money may soon disappear.

As the Veterans Benefits Administration puts it in a statement to the Independent, the "VA encourages students to plan in advance for potential benefit reductions that will be effective August 1, 2011."

The reason why is a little complicated, but suffice to say that trying to fix one problem created another.

The original provisions of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, passed in 2008, covered veterans' education costs at any school, up to the amount of tuition and fees of the most expensive public institution in that state. In Colorado, according to the VA, that amounts to a $45,000 cap.

However, concerns raised by some veteran service organizations regarding state-by-state tuition inequity, among other issues, prompted the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010 — which placed a $17,500 annual cap on tuition-and-fee payments for student veterans at private or foreign institutions.

So Colorado vets whose education costs previously were covered up to $45,000 are now slated to receive just $17,500 next year. That would leave them with three choices: applying for the Yellow Ribbon Program (a supplement provided by the Act, available at some schools), coming up with the difference themselves, or transferring mid-program to a less expensive school.

At Regis University's Colorado Springs campus, Stephen Claro is among those worrying about next year. He's a business major, and in the School of Management, taking 15 credits per semester, on campus, will amount to almost $12,000 per year. Costs rise if you take online classes, and then of course there are plenty of miscellaneous fees, not to mention room and board.

"If I do the numbers with Regis and their tuition is more than $17,500 a year, then I will be forced to find another college," says Claro. "I will not attend a college where tuition is higher than the government rates set by the Post-9/11 GI bill."

The issue has received some attention in Congress. Two measures introduced last month, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., respectively, have been designed to exempt current GI Bill students at private institutions from the new payment cap. The protective legislation would grandfather them in until their studies are complete.

"This legislation will fix this inequity and ensure that our veterans receive the full benefits they were promised and rightly deserve," said Schumer in an April 7 press release. "It will make sure we don't change the rules in the middle of the game."

As of press time, however, no hearings had been scheduled.

If the bills proposed by Schumer and Miller don't go anywhere, thousands of Colorado student veterans who were relying on the original rates will have tough decisions to make before August. The most recent data available by the VA shows that an estimated 13,614 Coloradans take advantage of the education benefits that have been the hallmark of the GI Bill since it was passed in 1944.

One of Colorado's U.S. senators, Michael Bennet, actually co-sponsored the 2010 Improvements Act, which among other positive changes expanded the bill's reach to National Guard members on Title 10 (active-duty) orders and gave certain benefits to active-duty personnel.

"The [revisions] bill focuses on flexibility and creates expansion for more service members," read a statement this week from Bennet's office in response to questions from the Independent. "The Improvements Act was necessary to go back and tweak a few things that were written poorly or were too vague."

Bennet's office did indicate the senator intends to examine the recently proposed measures. But as men and women like Claro know too well, the clock is ticking.



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