In early 2020, the emergence of COVID-19 had begun and its ultimate spread across the country became inevitable. Many workplaces shut their doors, colleges moved to remote learning, and the world shifted into something that most of us had never before experienced.
With everything else shutting down, the United States Army, in a very real way, kept rolling along. Soldiers at the time faced a tough decision about their futures. Big media outlets were pushing storylines that featured mass layoffs, surging unemployment and the government even stepping in to give out stimulus checks to the people as a short-term solution to save our economy and encourage consumer spending. Steady paychecks sounded better than ever, but some service members continued to make the leap and leave their respective branches.
About 900,000 veterans and members of the military-affiliated community use the VA’s educational benefits annually to attend school. With the U.S. military officially out of Afghanistan and no longer in a war posture, many of those who can receive education benefits will shift their attention to futures outside the military and the number of people using those benefits will likely rise.
Before the pandemic, there had been stipulations with the use of the GI Bill that veterans needed to attend at least a few classes in person at the academic institution they were hoping to get their degree. The reason is that individuals receiving VA educational benefits get paid a monthly housing allowance.
The rate at which those benefits are paid depends on a cost-of-living analysis for the ZIP code where the school is located. A quick example pulled from the VA’s website demonstrating this difference is that those using benefits to attend the University of California Los Angeles will receive $3,171 per month while someone attending the University of Florida, using the same benefit, will receive only $1,485 each month.
When colleges moved to remote learning in 2020, Congress passed a fix that changed the in-person stipulation and provided a temporary adjustment that allowed those using benefits to take classes completely over the internet. Now, in 2023, it’s normal for individuals to be back to taking classes full-time in person and the GI Bill has gone back to requiring one class to be in person in order to be eligible for the full housing allowance.
Realistically, as far as most veterans are concerned, one class in person is not a deal-breaker. The problem with this scenario is that universities have learned the advantages of online learning.
For a university planning an online course, the logistical process is considerably simpler. There are no overlapping times, no hunt for open classrooms, and less pressure on teachers to make it to school early if they can just teach from their home office. Remote learning has become the way of the future, while policymakers continue to attempt to march the GI Bill backward.
Veterans are objective-oriented individuals, often looking to get their degrees as fast as possible so they can move on to the next stage of their life. That means knocking out those required classes in a procedural, expedited manner. The echoes of COVID-19′s remote learning adjustment mean that sometimes the classes they need can only be found online.
For a fall or spring semester, this often presents no issues. Winter and summer semesters are different beasts altogether. Those two educational periods typically see a heavy drawdown in classes offered in person along with an increase in online learning. However, even in spring and fall semesters, universities can change in-person classes to online modalities with no forward notice to the students until the day that class starts. So, if a veteran only picked one in-person class, their housing allowance could be in jeopardy.
Those who don’t manage to find a fitting schedule still have their school paid for, but their housing allowance is cut at a rate of around 57%. Twelve-month leases are unfortunately not considerate of whether veterans are able to secure their benefits for the next semester.
The schools don’t share the same burden of responsibility that the government has in this matter. The question left for policymakers to consider is whether this bill is currently set up to best provide for America’s veterans. The GI Bill is not only an important, well-deserved resource for veterans but also a powerful recruiting tool. It would benefit us all to make sure the bill is completely considerate of the world in which post-9/11 veterans live.
As it stands, the GI Bill is attempting a move back to a world that does not exist anymore.
Colin Andersen is an Army veteran studying public relations at Loyola University Chicago. Andersen is a Student Veterans of America Leadership Fellow and an advocate for veterans’ rights. He co-founded Chicago Brigade, a nonprofit to better guide student veterans toward professional development and brighter futures.
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