Veterans Will See Big Benefits Increase In Just-Passed GI Bill

Soldiers who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan will be eligible for nearly twice as much tuition as before.

With the stroke of his pen on Monday, President George W. Bush helped usher into law the most sweeping change in the GI Bill since the veterans-education plan's inception after World War II. Under a new $63 billion provision, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts will be eligible for nearly twice as much tuition and housing funds as they were previously.

Starting in August 2009, the new bill promises veterans the chance to get a four-year degree at no cost, and allows them to transfer benefits to their spouses and children. It also provides new benefits for National Guard members and reservists.

It was an update to the original bill, which promised troops returning from WWII enough money for a four-year degree plus housing and living expenses. But because the pricing structure had become so outdated, many veterans complained they could not attend college without taking out additional loans.

The new bill, sponsored by Virginia Democrat and decorated Vietnam veteran Senator Jim Webb, sought to correct that gap by linking its benefits to the price of the most expensive public college in a veteran's home state, while offering up more money for housing and living expenses as well. For veterans in the states where college is most expensive, the whole package could offer more than $25,000 a year in benefits.

In a statement, Webb said the passage of the bill marked a historic day for the country's newest generation of veterans. "This bill properly provides a modern and fair educational benefit to address the needs of those who answered the call of duty to our country — those who moved toward the sound of the guns — often at great sacrifice."

Though the new provisions won't go into effect until next August, veterans currently in college will get an interim 20 percent bump in benefits. According to Webb's office, under the old GI Bill, the maximum annual benefit for tuition and housing was $9,901, with the average cost of tuition in 2008 at four-year public colleges totaling $6,185, and tuition for a four-year private college topping $23,500.

Under the new plan, the national average estimated tuition and housing benefit next year will be $16,676. According to numbers compiled by the Stars and Stripes military publication, a veteran living in Wyoming would get the lowest estimated tuition and housing benefit under the new plan, at $12,554, while one living in Michigan would get the highest, at $22,094.

Anyone who has had at least three months' service since September 11, 2001, is eligible for partial benefits, while troops who have served at least three years since that date can get four years of college in their home state paid for, plus around $1,000 a month for housing and living expenses. The new bill also offers $1,200 a year in tutoring services and $1,000 for books.

Among the other provisions of the bill:

· Benefits last for 15 years (instead of the previous 10).

· Troops who have served at least 10 years of active duty can transfer the benefits to a spouse or child.

· Families can divide up the benefits however they choose.

· Career military members can get free college educations for their children at state schools beginning in the fall of 2009.

· National Guard and Reserve members who served at least three years on active duty over the past seven qualify for full tuition benefits. They also have 15 years to use the benefit, an improvement over the current rule that they have to remain in the Guard or Reserve to receive the funds.

· Though veterans who have already used all their GI Bill benefits do not qualify, those who have not yet used them or have not previously signed up can take advantage of the benefits as long as they've served at least three years since September 11, 2001.

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