GI Bill’s wording costs state’s student vets

Matthew B. Stannard, San Francisco Chronicle – May 23, 2009

After four years in the Marine Corps, Paul Miller was looking forward to going back to school – in his case, to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to study the clarinet.

He auditioned well and won a scholarship – not enough to cover the full master’s program tuition, but student loans covered the rest of his $33,000 tuition last year. He figured the new Post-9/11 GI Bill would replace his need for loans when he begins his second year this fall.

But last week, Miller, 28, learned the amount of his tuition the bill would pay: none.

Miller ran into an anomaly unique to California’s university system – a difference in a single word that could cause thousands of California veterans like him to miss out on educational benefits available in every other state.

Because California calls the money students pay to attend its public universities “fees” and not “tuition,” veterans like Miller, who are attending private campuses or seeking higher degrees, are ineligible to receive thousands of dollars that they would receive in other states. In Miller’s case, it’s nearly a $13,000 difference.

“I thought it was a mistake,” he said.

The problem lies in an interpretation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which was intended to be flexible, supporting students in public and private schools and undergraduate and graduate programs.

Because educational costs vary widely by institution and state, the bill included a standardizing formula: Students would be reimbursed for tuition up to an amount equal to the most expensive public undergraduate tuition charged by their state.

That meant veterans seeking an undergraduate degree at a public institution would have their full tuition reimbursed, while students seeking graduate degrees or attending private institutions would receive tuition reimbursement equivalent to the costs of tuition in undergraduate public institutions.

California wrinkle

But California has a wrinkle: Since 1960, state law has affirmed that California residents should attend public colleges and universities “tuition free,” although students could be charged fees for housing and other costs. As the state reduced its support for higher education, however, universities raised fees to pay for services that in other states would have come from tuition.

California State University fees, for example, more than doubled between 1993 and 2009. Tuition remained “free” – but mainly in name.

For most students, the distinction hardly matters – they write checks each semester and don’t think about what the money is called. But, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Post-9/11 GI Bill reimbursement rate is specifically based on public education tuition, not on fees. Tuition in California’s public universities: zero.

The upshot is that veterans can attend California’s undergraduate public institutions for free under the federal law but veterans seeking graduate degrees or to attend private institutions will receive no money for tuition.

They can be reimbursed for fees up to about $6,600 per term – the top amount charged in California’s public universities – but fees in most private institutions are a small portion of total cost.

“Apparently the VA missed the memo or something,” said Miller. “They’re not existing in the same world logically as any of the people they purport to serve.”

Forced to change plans

The problem was revealed as applications for the new GI Bill began to be accepted at the beginning of May for benefits to be paid beginning in August. Already some veterans have been forced to change their educational plans – and more.

“I did want to come to California,” said Teresa Guerin, who is in the Air Force with her husband and had been planning to move with him from Texas to Santa Rosa, where he would be a recruiter and she would pursue a master’s of business administration after her enlistment.

But after finding that the new GI Bill would not pay her graduate tuition, Guerin and her husband requested reassignment in Texas.

“I couldn’t put my life on hold to see how they were going to fix it,” she said.

One kind of fix already exists: the Yellow Ribbon Program, in which the VA matches contributions by participating private institutions. The program is intended to make up the difference between what the GI Bill pays and the actual tuition.

But not all schools participate – including the Conservatory of Music, Miller said – and some veterans worry that the California discrepancy will discourage schools from signing up.

What’s more, the Yellow Ribbon Program requires a minimum of 36 months of service. People like Darren Matt of Walnut Creek, who was in the Air Force Reserve and was activated for a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, are therefore ineligible. He would be eligible for up to 60 percent of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits – if not for the California anomaly.

‘Huge group excluded’

“So I still get nothing. There’s a huge group of people who are going to be excluded from this,” said Matt, who is seeking an MBA. “I can’t imagine that was the intent of the bill.”

This week, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, co-sponsored with Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), a bill designed to fix the problem. In a conference call Thursday, Thompson said he remains hopeful that the VA can fix the problem without congressional action.

“I’m hoping that we don’t have to go through the whole legislative fix,” he said. “This is no more than a bureaucratic snafu.”

————— is the Go to Site for Veterans for Education Benefits. We are aware of this problem and support fixing it. The intention of the Post 9/11 GI Bill was to provide education benefits to veterans nationwide. This is an issue of semantics that is costing California veterans dearly. This is especially difficult for those seeking graduate degrees. We fully support The Veterans Equality Education Bill introduced by Buck McKeon. It should be a fix to this problem that cannot be fixed on an administrative level. If you are seeking the most up-to-date information on veteran education, provides it. You can find a Veteran School Directory as well as a Directory of Scholarships featuring thousands of scholarships. There are even FAQ’s on the Post 9/11 GI Bill. There is something for everyone on When the next tours is back home, it’s on