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The Forever GI Bill: A Beginning Not an End

The EvoLLLution | The Forever GI Bill: A Beginning Not an End
While the Forever GI Bill creates broader access to education and improves benefits for veterans, there’s still a significant amount of work left to be done before we can be satisfied that the educational needs of service members are met.

The New Legislation (HR 3218): Silence Isn’t Golden

It is quite remarkable actually. The first major changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill since 2011 were signed into law by President Trump on Wednesday, August 16th. Best as I can tell, the press were not there in New Jersey when the President signed the Forever GI Bill, and notably little has been said or written about this new legislation and its many long-awaited and beneficial provisions.

That is pretty shocking given the media coverage of this president, veterans’ issues and the way in which this legislation emerged—unanimously passed by the House and Senate. In fact, the legislation had bipartisan support and includes 18 different bills amalgamated together to form one large reform effort. And outside groups were deeply involved in the legislative process, including Student Veterans of America (SVA).

One explanation might be that these new benefits were squelched by the leftist media that doesn’t want to give the Trump administration any credit for anything. Perhaps the media were not invited though, as a form of punishment or non-communication strategy of sorts.

Sadly, I think there is another reason this legislation has not received enough attention: it is not as fulsome as it appears to be on the surface. Yipes.

Indeed, if one looks beneath the bill’s surface, there are two key aspects of this legislation that warrant attention: the effective dates (and the reasons for their staggering for years to come) and what is missing and unaddressed (including not closing the 90/10 loophole). Most of the commentary that exists skirts these two negative issues for the most part (with some notable exceptions including at the hearing on the House Bill and the report of the Student Veterans of America). One more thing: the bill’s implementation will be expensive but let’s leave that issue aside.

Let me be very clear: We tend to pay attention to what legislation says and does; we do not focus on what is omitted as many aren’t even aware of what is missing that would have a substantive impact. Next, as a generalizable matter, we ignore (unless one is a lawyer practicing in this area or a subject matter expert) whether a new law has retroactive, contemporaneous or future applicability. Ironically, we think these timing provisions are technical aspects of the law; for me, they are the meat and speak volumes about the legislation itself and the machinations that led to its passage.

Let me explain these observation in greater detail but first, consider this analogy to set the stage. Legislation is often titled as if it benefits a group but the actual legislation undercuts protections to the affected groups. A prime example: The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. It actually did the opposite of its title, harming consumer debtors and benefitting unsecured and secured bank creditors. Good lobbying got good results and a sensational (though inaccurate) title. Ponder, then, the use of the term “forever.”

The Key Provisions

Now turning to Veterans and Service Members. Formally titled the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 (HR 3218) and colloquially dubbed the “Forever GI Bill” for reasons to be explained momentarily this piece of legislation changes the landscape of benefits related to education that current and former military personnel can garner.

In short form, here are some of the major improvements:

  1. Veteran educational benefits (assuming quality election) terminated after 15 years under prior law. For veterans that transferred these benefits, 15 years was too short a time period for sure. That cap has now been lifted, and thus the use of the word “forever.” (I did not see changes in the complex election or transfer process but I could have missed that.)
  2. Some Purple Heart recipients, previously denied educational benefits because they had not served the requisite time period, can now access 100 percent of educational benefits.
  3. Family members can benefit from the Yellow Ribbon program if the spouse dies, a benefit that previously terminated on death of the service member. And Yellow Ribbon benefits are extended to active service members if they are enrolled at least half-time in the applicable college/university.
  4. Extra benefits are made available to those pursuing STEM degrees (broadly defined); this recognizes that these programs may take longer to complete than a “traditional” four-year college degree and offer real employment opportunities post-degree completion.
  5. Veterans damaged by for-profit colleges that shuttered will be able to recover their GI Bill benefits so these monies can be re-used for educational purposes at another institution.
  6. Fuller educational benefits will be provided for Reservists and Guards who are activated, something that was previously pro-rated in ways that did not allow quality benefits commensurate with service.
  7. A pilot program will be launched to enable service members and veterans to take non-degree courses that could lead to employment opportunities, all funded by the GI Bill.

By any measure, these are quality improvements and the educational opportunities for those who serve and the families of those who serve will be augmented. That’s good news and worthy of our praise and our attention.

What’s the Glitch?

To be clear, there are several glitches here, and I am leaving out the technology ones addressed in the bill. Start with this one.

As important as increased educational access is, educational success is even more important. If service members and veterans do not attend quality programs and do not get a degree or certificate that can lead to quality employment, we have a problem. And, while we can debate whether veterans on campuses do better than non-veterans in terms of retention and graduation rates, we know we can do more.

One starting premise is the recognition that veterans come to the educational table with a set of life experiences that distinguishes them from many of the more traditional students (age 18 to 24). Many veterans have been deployed. Many have experienced trauma. Many have had less than stellar educational experiences pre-military. Many have not read or written in an academic setting for years. Many are not getting credit for the learning and coursework they have completed while in the service. Issues abound, and we can have all the laws in the world about paying for education but we need to make sure that education has value. Real value.

So, the Forever GI Bill, for all its increased economic offerings, does not relieve institutions from their obligations to improve veteran student experiences on campuses. We may differ as to what it takes to enable veteran success but surely we can agree that whatever interventions might exist, we need to deploy them strategically, systemically and systematically.

The next issue with the Forever GI Bill is the absence of any effort to close the 90/10 Rule. Basically, this rule is intended to cap how much money for-profit educational institutions can receive from the federal government. (Many non-profits comply too.) As stated in the law, no more than 90 percent of a for-profit institution’s revenue can come from federal student aid. Now, we can debate the merits of this rule but there is value in diverse sources of income and increased accountability. We could look to other solutions too (like improved accreditation but that’s a different can of worms.)

But, here’s the loophole. Monies for-profit institutions receive from the GI Bill (also federal money of course) Now, in practice, that means that some for-profits get 100 percent of their revenue from the federal government—just some of it comes from the military pool of dollars. And, this loophole creates an enormous incentive for for-profit institutions to recruit the military into their institutions.

We can debate what the right rule should be—and how to calculate it. But, the failure to address this issue misses an opportunity to improve education for service members and former military. And, despite the loud debates on for-profit colleges, no change to this rule appears in the Forever GI Bill.

The foregoing are important issues but the “killer” issues in my book relate to when the new provisions of the Forever GI Bill go into effect and to whom they apply. Definitions and timetables matter. We can laud the substance but I guess Gulf War vets aren’t included in most of these changes.

Before turning to the specifics (which make my blood boil although I recognize they were introduced to eliminate down the road budgetary constraints and deficits, as the bill is expensive), let me ask these questions:

What happens in the gap period? Does one just postpone one’s education? Does one just look forward to what is to come and stumble along in the meanwhile? Since educational attainment takes time, delays impact entry into the workforce and improvements in the lives and incomes of veterans. Do veterans or their families pay out of pocket now and just await the new programs? And, what if the dates are pushed even further forward? That is possible if the budget gets bad enough and Congress sees more deficits. And, what if we have new wars and new injuries? These folks just wait (and in some instances wait even more).

Turning to specifics, beautifully detailed by the Student Veterans of America summary of the legislation and cited above and re-cited here, note that this is not a comprehensive listing of effective dates but a sampling to make the needed point.

Start with the Purple Heart educational benefits—which are now expanded and cover any wounded Purple Heart recipient since September 11, 2001. Sounds good but the benefits do not become effective until August 1, 2018. Now ponder this. You are injured now. As I read this provision, you need to wait to get educational benefits until 2018 unless you are otherwise eligible now. I get the economics—it defers costs to the US Government. But, it puts the lives of injured soldier on ice.

Now turn to the expansion of the Yellow Ribbon Program. Under the bill, it became available to many more service members, including those on active duty, if they are enrolled at least half-time. Well, that is good. And the effective date of this program enhancement (and this is not a typo) is August 1, 2022. Seriously. Perhaps this relates, too, to the need for institutions to prepare themselves for the influx of more service members and the attendant costs to public and private educational institutions.

There is an increase in educational benefits for reservists, another good provision. The size of the educational support depends on the length of active duty, which also makes sense. It applies only to those deployed since Sept. 2001 (similar to the Purple Heart eligibility). And, the effective date of this added amount being available (again no typo): August 1, 2020.

Final example, the bill expands the educational benefits to those engaged in a STEM degree. The effective date is August 1, 2019. Query: What if you are enrolled now? You should quit school? Can the benefits come to you in 2019 for prior years or only moving forward? And, can you be in school now and declare a STEM major in 2019 or must you start out as a STEM degree candidate?

How the Bill Got its Name

Now, to be fair and accurate, the bill’s name, the “Forever GI Bill,” does away with the 15-year rule that previously provided that all educational benefits are lost if they are not used up by year 15 (forgetting for a moment how we calculate when is year 15). This provision resembled airline miles that expire at a certain date if unused and it is easy to lose track of which miles expire when.

Under the new law, this provision takes effect immediately. That is serious progress. But, it is only available to those who exited the service with a discharge on or after Jan. 1, 2013. So, if you were discharged in 2012 or before, forget about it. I wonder why and how that 2013 date was picked. But, let’s be clear—there is no cap if you are in the eligible range for no cap. It is not forever for everyone. Period. Full stop.

What Now?

As with all legislation, not every goal is achieved and compromise is part and parcel of the legislative process. We need to acknowledge the many upsides to the Forever GI Bill and commend the bipartisan and speedy (ish) way in which this legislation moved in this tough political environment.

But, there remain critical unresolved issues for our veterans. And, a passage of legislation (any legislation) often means attention turns elsewhere on the theory that we have done this, time to move on to other issues.

But, that is not the case here. We are still at war. It looks like we may have another war. We are continuing to deploy many men and women to protect our freedoms and those of other peoples across the globe. We continue to have injured soldiers. We continue to have issues with medical records and use of technology across the Veterans Administration. The Transition Assistance Program is floundering by most accounts, depending on the service to be sure. For-profit colleges were in decline but they seem to be having something of resurgence within the current political climate at the Department of Education.

Bottom line: the Forever GI Bill moves us forward but there is work to be done. And as my favorite Vermont poet Robert Frost said, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”

Yes, we have miles to go before we can be satisfied that the educational needs of our service men and women and their families and our veterans and their families are met.

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