Congress OKs big boost in GI Bill college aid for veterans

A seal is affixed June 21, 2013, to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress sent President Donald Trump legislation to provide the biggest expansion of college aid for military veterans in a decade.

The Senate cleared the bill by voice vote on Wednesday, passing the second piece of legislation aimed at addressing urgent problems at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs in as many days. The House passed the bipartisan college aid legislation last week.

The measure is a broad effort to better prepare veterans for life after active-duty service amid a rapidly changing job market.

Building on major legislation passed in 2008 that guaranteed a full-ride scholarship to any in-state public university — or a similar cash amount for private college students — the bill removes a 15-year time limit to tap into GI benefits and increases money for thousands in the National Guard and Reserve.

Veterans would get additional payments if they complete science, technology and engineering courses. The bill also would restore benefits if a college closed in the middle of the semester, a protection added when thousands of veterans were hurt by the collapse of for-profit college giant ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges. Purple Heart recipients, meanwhile, would be fully eligible for benefits, regardless of length of time in service.

“This bill invests in the proven success of our veterans,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. “When our veterans return home, they should have every opportunity available to them to pursue their desired profession and career.”

The panel’s top Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana, says the bill “also does right by Guardsmen and Reservists by getting them the education, housing and health care that they have earned. I look forward to working with President Trump to quickly sign our bill into law.”

Tester is one of the more vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year, seeking another term in a state Trump won last year.

The Senate on Tuesday backed a measure that authorizes $3.9 billion in emergency spending to avert imminent bankruptcy in the VA’s Veterans Choice Program of private-sector care. About $1.8 million of that money would bolster core VA programs, including 28 leases for new VA medical facilities.

The education benefits would take effect for enlistees who begin using their GI Bill money next year.

For a student attending a private university, the additional benefits to members of the Guard and Reserve could mean $2,300 a year more in tuition than they are receiving now, plus a bigger housing allowance.

A wide range of veterans’ groups had supported the expanded GI Bill benefits. The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, hailed the proposal as launching a “new era” for those who served in uniform.

According to Student Veterans of America, only about half of the 200,000 service members who leave the military each year go on to enroll in a college, while surveys indicate that veterans often outperform peers in the classroom.

Veterans of Foreign Wars estimates that hundreds of thousands of veterans stand to gain from the new benefits.

The expanded educational benefits would be paid for by bringing living stipend payments under the GI Bill down to a similar level as that received by an active-duty member, whose payments were reduced in 2014 by 1 percent a year for five years. Total government spending on the GI Bill is expected to be more than $100 billion over 10 years.

Indiana reaction

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued this statement:

I am pleased the Senate passed bipartisan legislation I helped introduce that would help thousands of student veterans harmed by ITT Tech’s sudden closure last year and would strengthen GI Bill benefits for members of the National Guard and Reserves. I was proud to work with my colleagues, Republican and Democratic, on this effort that would help veterans further their education with the benefits they have earned through service and sacrifice in defense of our nation.”

U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, a Republican from Indiana, issued this statement:

This is a huge win for our veterans. Not only does this bill expand GI Bill benefits for our military families, it helps the thousands of veterans who unfairly lost their benefits when ITT Tech closed. Our military men and women earn their GI Bill benefits serving and defending our country. It is our duty to honor that commitment, and ensure our veterans get every chance to succeed.”

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