Durbin supports increased access for veterans to higher education benefits

By Alex Swanson

Some veterans in Illinois who want to attend college are having difficulty accessing their full state and federal benefits in order to pay for their education. But that may soon change.

Sen. Dick Durbin recently sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs to express his support for a state of Illinois waiver request that could allow veterans to more fully access their educational benefits.

The waiver request was submitted by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Illinois Department of Military Affairs.

If approved, the waiver would allow veterans to decide whether to apply state or federal educational benefits for college and when to do so, based on their educational goals. The waiver would take effect on July 1, 2015, according to ISAC.

Jay Jerman, University alumnus, served in the United States Army between 2005 and 2008, and said that veteran educational benefits are what allowed him to attend the University.

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    “Any benefit for veterans regarding college is always going to increase accessibility. That’s the reason I was able to go to college,” he said. “Otherwise, if there had been no benefits at all, state or federal, I would not have been able to go without incurring a lot of debt.”

    The Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits include funding for housing, books, tuition and fees at public or private post-secondary institutions. In contrast, state benefits can only be used toward tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges.

    Currently in Illinois, veteran students are required to apply all of their state benefits before they can access their federal benefits such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Or, they can choose not to use their Illinois Veterans Grant, IVG, benefits, and instead, use only their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. In that case, they could save their IVG benefits for further future education.

    Students also have the ability to apply benefits from both state and federal programs for the same academic term. In this situation, the IVG benefits would be applied first, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits could cover any additional expenses.

    However, an issue arises when a veteran student is not 100 percent eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, due to length of service.

    “Under the current system, when both federal and state benefits are used in the same academic term, veterans who are eligible for less than 100 percent of the Post-9/11 GI Bill will not necessarily get the full value of their federal benefits,” said Lynne Baker, managing director of communications at ISAC. “Currently, in this scenario, veterans would have to use their state benefits first, and the federal benefits would pay for housing and other costs not covered by the state benefits. However, regardless of how much the federal benefits cover, students in this scenario would still ‘use up’ the full federal entitlement for that academic term.”

    The waiver would allow student veterans to choose what benefit to apply first, so that they may access the full amount of both their state and federal benefits.

    If the waiver is granted and a student partially pays for a college education with Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits first, and the remaining cost is covered by the IVG, it is unlikely that the IVG benefit would be entirely used. So, a student veteran could save unused funds from IVG benefits, which never expire, to later apply toward another higher education degree.

    William Hubbard, spokesman for Student Veterans of America, served in the Marine Corps for eight years and supports the waiver.

    “Just because there are some states who’ve really gone out of their way to really recognize the service of veterans, beyond what the federal government has authorized, that should not be a reason to make it more difficult for veterans to use the current benefits they’ve already earned,” Hubbard said.

    In his letter, Durbin notes that an issue also develops when veteran students need to pay for housing right away but don’t fully qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Often those students forfeit their state benefits to access the federal benefits to pay for housing or books.

    Ryan Yantis, communications manager for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said the initiative could increase access to higher education benefits for many student veterans.

    “What Senator Durbin and others are advocating for in the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs is a situation where the GI Bill is equitably distributed or available, and student veterans aren’t penalized for using other sources or other grants or benefits that they’ve earned through their service,” he said.

    Alex can be reached at [email protected]