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Glitch In New GI Bill For Some California Veterans

San Diego State University is being forced to toughen its admission due to severe budget cuts to education around the state.
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Above: San Diego State University is being forced to toughen its admission due to severe budget cuts to education around the state.

— The number of military veterans attending college in California and across the country is expected to go up this fall.

That’s because the government is giving veterans more money to go to school. It’s part of a new, beefed-up GI Bill that will take effect August 1.

But the boom in veterans-on-campus comes at a time when some California colleges are restricting enrollment to cut costs.

There’s also a glitch in the GI Bill when it comes to California. Some veterans may be denied benefits depending on which campus they choose.

The way Christopher Colbert tells it, he really had no intention of joining the Army.

“I actually was following a female into the recruiting station to get a phone number,” said Colbert.

He didn’t get that number.

“But the recruiter got mine. So it worked out great.”

Colbert joined the Army in 2001. He was a payroll administrator stationed at Ford Hood in Texas. Colbert left the military in 2005 and has been working for the state of California. Now he’s planning to go to Sacramento State to work on a degree in Human Resource management this fall. Colbert says he can’t believe how good the GI Bill benefits are.

“If you’re in the military, you’re giving your life, your time, your family. And when you get out you kind of get a handshake, ‘thank you for your service,’” he said. “But for them to actually pay for your schooling and you not incur any debt or any problem, that’s the best benefit I’ve seen. I was like ‘wow’.”

Under the new GI Bill, veterans who served after the 9/11 Terror Attacks will get all their tuition and fees for any in-state public university covered. They’ll also get an allowance for housing and $1,000 a year for books and supplies.

Colbert said the new GI Bill couldn’t have come at a better time. His wife also works for the state. And he says the unpaid furlough days ordered by Governor Schwarzenegger are gouging his budget.

“That’s 30 percent out of my household. This new GI Bill will kind of offset some of that.”

Colbert will be among tens-of-thousands of veterans attending school at community college, University of California and California State University campuses this fall. In fact, CSU officials say their current enrollment of veterans and service members - around 17,000 - could double.

“It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” said Jim Blackburn, who is with the CSU Chancellor’s Office. “Of course it’s coming at a time when we’re trying to cut back the overall enrollment of the university. So it’s going to be challenging.”

State budget cuts have forced CSU to close its 2010 spring admissions. But Blackburn says for this fall, veterans shouldn’t have a problem getting in. California law allows state colleges to give priority to veterans.

“As long as they don’t want to come in spring 2010 we should be fine. But it’s like the tie goes to the runner in baseball. If everything else is equal the veteran will get special consideration,” said Blackburn.

The new GI Bill also comes at the same time both CSU and UC are hiking student fees.

Marie Zainab Noah finished a four-year stint with the Navy last year and is looking forward to her GI Bill benefits. She’ll be attending Sacramento State this fall. Her goal is to become a policy analyst for the state Legislature. Noah says the 30 percent fee hikes approved this year by CSU trustees won’t be a problem for her.

“The new GI Bill makes it okay because even if they do the fee hike my tuition is going to be covered because it doesn’t go past the maximum amount. So yes, I’m very happy,” she said.

But not everyone is happy about the new GI Bill.

“It almost seems as though it isn’t fair to a veteran who wants to go to a private university,” said Ryan Gallucci, who is with the Maryland-based veteran’s advocacy group AMVETS. He points out that the way the GI Bill is worded, some California veterans will miss out on benefits that vets in other state are getting. It all centers on semantics and the word “tuition.” Public universities in California don’t technically charge “tuition.” They charge “fees.”

“And this is where they ran into a problem with how the law is worded,” he said. “The Post 9/11 GI Bill is supposed to reimburse the highest state tuition rate for an in-state school.”

But since that “tuition” rate is zero in the state of California, veterans attending higher-priced private institutions would be entitled to zero dollars for their tuition.

“The semantics issue – a lot of people have been working to try and get this resolved,” said Gallucci.

JP Tremblay, who is with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, said they’ve been talking with their counterparts at the federal VA.

“…So that they understand how it is that we count. We may not call it a “tuition” but it is basically the same thing. Hopefully we’ll get things resolved here fairly quickly,” said Tremblay.

But federal VA officials have been discouraging any changes in the new GI Bill. They’re worried it would delay startup of the bill.

Meanwhile a Republican lawmaker from Southern California is also trying to fix the glitch, with legislation. Santa Clarita Congressman Buck McKeon says the GI Bill was hastily thrown together last year around election time.

“When we found out how the California veterans were really shortchanged we just jumped right on it and put together a bipartisan bill,” said McKeon.

His bill would correct the discrepancy. McKeon said about 20 percent of California veterans go to private schools.

“They’ve laid everything on the line for us and now they come back and they’re not being treated fairly. And we should be able to straighten it out and fix it,” he said.

But with the first GI Bill payments going out in early August, that fix may not come soon enough.

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