Private colleges still have questions about new GI Bill

For public colleges and universities, the terms of the new bill appear to be relatively clear-cut. It essentially covers tuition and fees for any eligible veteran pursuing an undergraduate degree in his or her home state.

Much of the uncertainty to date centers on what happens if a veteran chooses a higher-priced option — a private college, for example, or a graduate program at a public school in another state.

In those cases, the federal government will pay up to what it would have cost to enroll in the highest-priced undergraduate program at an in-state public school. Schools that charge more and agree to put up a certain amount of money toward the difference can get federal matching money to help close the gap.

A spokeswoman for the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution that enrolled more than 17,000 GI Bill beneficiaries in 2007 — far more than any other college or university — said Wednesday that it intended to participate.

Even with much of the fine print still unwritten, a steady stream of private colleges, including Drew University in Madison, N.J., George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa., have announced that they also intended to participate in the plan, called the Yellow Ribbon Program.

"We said, 'One way or another we will do this,' " says Jon Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Rochester, where 11 veterans (out of 4,400 students) are currently enrolled. He estimates the cost of the maximum benefit to the school, where tuition runs about $36,000 a year, at about $75,000 over four years for one veteran.

But as deadlines near, some schools say they need more answers before they can decide.

Higher-education associations have peppered officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with requests for clarification and suggested improvements in proposed regulations on how the GI Bill will work. And some preliminary data posted on the Veterans Administration website has created confusion about what the maximum benefit will be in each state.

"We intend to participate, but we don't know exactly how," says Scott Fleming, associate vice president for federal relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Federal lawmakers, too, question whether the federal government will be able to resolve all of its concerns in time to meet the Aug. 1 deadline.

"I think it is fair to say that getting the new GI Bill up and running is proving to be a far more complex task than anyone thought," Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., said at a hearing last month of a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee, where he is the ranking Republican member.

Keith Wilson, director of the education service division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said his staff is on schedule. In an interview, he acknowledged being on a "very aggressive timetable for implementation." But he said that despite concerns raised by college officials, "I think we're all in agreement that we want to do the best for veterans."

Susan Hattan, senior consultant at the National Association for Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private colleges, agrees. Most members view the Yellow Ribbon Program as "an incredibly positive opportunity," she says.

"There are clearly a lot of questions out there (but) I don't know that that's unusual, given that they're bringing up this entire massive new program in about a year."

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