The benefits are better in Texas than elsewhere. Because of a quirk in the formula, even high-dollar private institutions such as Texas Christian, Southern Methodist and Baylor universities will be fully covered.
"The post-9-11 GI Bill is awesome," said Worthy, a senior at the University of Texas at Arlington and Marine Corps veteran. "I won’t have to accumulate any more debt before I get out of school."
The new law has more in common with the GI Bill used by men who fought at Anzio and Guadalcanal than any version that later generations of veterans knew.
That alone has many supporters excited, as most historians point to the original GI Bill, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, as a major factor in the explosion of the home-buying, disposable-income-using middle class in the 1950s.
An estimated 7.8 million World War II veterans used their GI Bill benefits to attend college, including former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and a raft of other notables such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, former Sen. Bob Dole, actor Charles Bronson and writer Joseph Heller.
"This is a great option for today’s young veterans," said Alexa Smith-Osborne, a social work professor at UT-Arlington who works with the Student Veteran Program. "I’m just thrilled. Jim Webb is on my gratitude prayer list every night."
Webb, a Vietnam veteran and first-term Democratic senator from Virginia, wrote the post-9-11 bill and shepherded it through Congress last year despite concerted opposition from the Bush administration over concerns that it would hurt retention in the armed forces.
Wait and see
The government estimates that the program will cost $7.1 billion in its first year and upwards of $75 billion over its life. The Veterans Affairs Department has spent 13 months getting ready for the rather complex implementation, which officially began Saturday.
The VA should know within a few months whether the new law attracts more veterans to college this autumn, but higher education authorities say the full impact may not be known for several years as more veterans find out about its benefits.
"A lot of students are looking for information, and institutions are doing a lot of prep work as they look forward to this," said Lesley McBain, senior research and policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., which represents 430 colleges, most of them small and midsize. "It will be a significant impact, but no one knows exactly what it will be or where."
Air Force veteran Mike Mathews, 27, an East Texas native who lives in Dallas, is one of those assessing his options. He has a good-paying, full-time job he doesn’t want to give up, yet he wants to attend college and major in finance. SMU, he is told, is within his financial reach.
"That’s the issue for me right now," he said: deciding between his short-term and long-term interests.
Since passage of the original GI Bill, veterans have been able to use VA money to pay for education. Over the decades, the law became the Montgomery GI Bill, but its benefits failed to keep up with the cost of college and did not take into account a living allowance, experts said.
As a result, neither was covered very well, forcing veterans to take out student loans or work full time and go to school when they could, which experts say led many to quit before completion.
Smith-Osborne, the daughter of a career soldier and combat veteran, has studied educational attainment by generations of veterans and found that Desert Storm veterans did not go to college in any greater numbers than Vietnam veterans.
That should not have been the case, she said, as Desert Storm veterans included many more women and high-school graduates, two groups more likely to go to college.
"One of the factors suggested by me was insufficient levels of coverage by the GI Bill," she said.
The new law is designed to correct those insufficiencies.
The law provides for educational benefits in amounts tied to the length of active-duty service after 9-11 and covers National Guard and reservists mobilized for duty.
For those who serve three years of active duty — routine for anyone who enlists — the government will cover tuition, fees and books for up to four years at the most expensive public institution in each veteran’s state.
In other words, every public college in the nation is open to veterans for free, and many private universities are as well. (The law covers only higher education, however, not vocational training.)
Flight training’s benefits
Mike Scott, director of financial aid for TCU, said he was shocked that the new program covers all higher-education institutions in Texas. TCU enrolled in the VA’s Yellow Ribbon program, agreeing to help cover costs above the government’s maximum.
But, he said, it doesn’t appear to be necessary, as the VA ruled that the most expensive public university in Texas was a flight training program at a Central Texas college, not the University of Texas, as everyone assumed. (That did not happen in most other states, where the benefits don’t seem to be as rich.)
"I don’t know of a school in Texas that the basic VA benefit would not cover," Scott said. "It’s an incredible benefit, not only for the veteran but also for their family members. I think you’ll see in the future that this made an incredible impact on the standard of living for veterans."
Additionally, the new GI Bill pays a housing stipend to full-time student-veterans, which amounts to $1,100 to $1,300 a month in Dallas-Fort Worth.
"With a part-time job, it’s really easy now to live on your own," said Worthy, 27, an Arlington Martin High graduate who served a tour in Iraq.
If there is a potential concern for Smith-Osborne, it is the government’s requirement for a veteran to take 12 hours of course work a semester to get the full range of benefits.
"There does not seem to be a waiver in place for veterans with disabilities, who may do better starting with six or nine hours," she said.
Post-9-11 GI Bill
A veteran who serves at least three years on active duty after 9-11 gets the maximum benefit. For others, such as reservists or National Guard troops, the benefit depends on length of service.
Benefits include tuition and fees up to the cost of the most expensive in-state university. In Texas, the maximum is $12,130 per semester — the cost of flight training at a Central Texas college. Veterans also receive an annual stipend for books of $1,000 and a monthly housing stipend. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the stipend is $1,100 to $1,300.
Many private institutions in Texas, including Texas Christian, Texas Wesleyan, Southern Methodist, Dallas Baptist, Rice and Austin College, also participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, pledging to help cover any cost that exceeds the VA’s maximum.
Veterans have 15 years after they leave active duty to use their benefits.
Veterans who re-enlist for four more years can transfer their full educational benefits to a spouse or child.
To receive the tuition assistance and housing allowance, a veteran must be a full-time student. In Texas, that requires 12 hours of course work every semester.
The government will not provide a housing allowance for students using an online university.
The Montgomery GI Bill still applies to veterans who choose vocational training or apprenticeship programs, neither of which the post-9-11 bill covers.