At a time when unity on any issue in Washington, D.C. is a rare commodity, it was gratifying to see lawmakers quickly pass a significant expansion to the education benefits for U.S. military veterans. The Bill, called the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017, flew through both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the span of three weeks, passing both by unanimous votes. The Bill made its way to the desk of President Donald Trump where he signed it on August 16, 2017, with little fanfare. Lawmakers and veterans alike have heralded the GI Bill expansion from its introduction approximately one month ago through its passage in the House and Senate – calling it a “shining example” of bipartisanship.
For many years, veterans’ advocates have been arguing for improvements to the GI Bill. A military benefit highly valued since its creation after World War II, the GI Bill offers substantial tuition assistance, among other supplementary benefits. Payments may vary depending on length of active duty service, number of credits the veteran is taking, and the type of college attended—although at most public colleges, the GI Bill will cover the entire cost of tuition. Since 2009, more than 350,000 veterans have earned post-secondary certificates and degrees by taking advantage of the GI Bill.
This new GI Bill has a long list of expansive changes, but here are a few of the biggest changes that student veterans should know about.
Time limits are eliminated. In one of its showcase changes, the bill does away with benefit expiration dates for any new enlistees—thus, its nickname, the “Forever GI Bill.” Until now, veterans had just 15 years from their date of discharge to use the money for tuition assistance. The elimination of the time limit will help older veterans return to school or retrain for a dynamic and changing job market.
More service members have access. The VA will now measure eligibility for benefits differently. This means the National Guard and Reserve members will now be eligible for expanded education benefits.
Previously, service members with at least 90 days but less than six months of active-duty service would be eligible for up to 40 percent of the full GI Bill benefits. Under new regulations, the same 90-days-to-six-month window is equal to 50 percent of benefits. Service members with at least six months and less than 18 months of service will be eligible for 60 percent of benefits.
In addition, any veteran who received a Purple Heart—regardless of length of service—will be eligible for the full benefits.
Students in STEM programs receive a boost. The expansion emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math degrees by offering additional money to veterans enrolled in those programs. Veterans must apply for a specific STEM scholarship, but could get either nine months of additional GI Bill benefits or a lump sum of $30,000. (The scholarship is limited to $100 million a year in aggregate benefits.)
Process is streamlined to make it easier for veterans to access their benefits. Among its other provisions, the bill also has one very important component: the dedication of more resources, technology and training aimed at making the program run smoothly. Specifically, the Bill sets aside $30,000,000 to improve information technology for GI Bill claims processing at the Veterans Benefits Administration, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also requires the department to provide training requirements for school certifying officers—the college staff members who are responsible for completing all the paperwork to verify that an enrolled student is eligible for benefits.
More people are eligible for Yellow Ribbon. The Yellow Ribbon Program is a voluntary agreement between schools and the VA to split school costs not covered by the GI Bill, reducing or eliminating the amount students must pay themselves.
The Forever GI Bill will expand eligibility for this program to surviving spouses or children of service members in August 2018 and active-duty service members in August 2022. Previously, only veterans eligible for GI Bill benefits at the 100 percent level or their dependents using transferred benefits were eligible for Yellow Ribbon.
Benefits can get transferred after death. A provision of the new Bill offers more flexibility with the transfer and distribution of benefits in case of death.
If a dependent who received transferred benefits dies before using all of the benefits, this provision gives the service member or veteran the ability to transfer remaining benefits to another dependent. This will go into effect August 2018 and apply to all deaths since 2009.
This provision also gives dependents of deceased service members the ability to make changes to their deceased loved one’s transferred benefits. Previously, only a service member had the authority to make changes to the benefits they wanted to transfer.
Surviving family members also get more money. Surviving spouses and children of service members who are receiving benefits through the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance Program will see their monthly education stipend increase by $200.
About the Author: Craig H. Handler, Esq. is a Judge Advocate assigned to the 7th Legal Support Detachment, 88th Brigade, New York Army Guard. Mr. Handler presently holds the rank of Captain, and is honored to assist soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with their legal needs.