by Daniel Bennett
The new GI Bill will go into effect this August, providing veterans with expanded benefits, such as tuition coverage up to the most expensive public school in a veteran's particular state, as well as a living allowance that is based on where the veteran lives (I imagine this is similar to locality pay that the Federal Government uses for employees). The bill has been lauded for its potential to increase access to the best educational opportunities for our nation's veterans. I am all for rewarding those who have risked their lives to serve our country by affording veterans the opportunity to expand their knowledge and increase their skills set, which in some respect, may already be higher than the traditional college student due to experience and training in the military.
However, there is one troubling aspect of the new bill-- as pointed out by Inside Higher Ed--veterans are only eligible for the living allowance if they are attending a bricks & mortar institutions more than half time and thus, excluding online institutions, which are very popular with veterans due to their flexibility. Flexibility is most likely a strong consideration for veterans due to the fact that many have families to provide for and/or have jobs. The decision to exclude online students from the housing allowance is fundamentally flawed.
First of all, this policy assumes that veterans not attending a bricks & mortar school do not have living expenses. Whether a student enrolls at a B&M or an online college, s/he still needs a place to live and a has a mouth to feed. Was the logic that veterans enrolled in online schools would move back home with "mom and pops", rent-free and the benefit of a home-cooked meal? Or perhaps it was assumed that all veterans partaking in online education have a full-time job and don't need the living allowance. I believe that policy makers missed the mark big time on this one, ignoring the fact that veterans often have a family and punishing those who need a flexible class schedule to attend to their family's needs.
Next, the policy is (perhaps inadvertently, but perhaps influenced by lobbying) discriminatory and potentially malicious towards predominately online schools, which garner a significant portion of their students from the veteran ranks. From a consumer (veteran) standpoint, a rational decision maker is going to weigh the costs versus the benefits when choosing a school and, assuming that financial considerations are a priority, enroll at the institution that will have the most favorable impact on his/her economic condition. With the added benefit of a housing allowance, coupled with increased tuition coverage, that student is more often than not going to choose the brick & mortar school, as there is a financial incentive to do so. Once veterans figure out how the system works, then it is possible that there will be a shift in veteran's enrollment preferences from online to traditional colleges and thus, sending a below-the-belt shot to the institutions who have attempted to innovate the education experience by increasing the productivity and hence, lowering the costs to both consumers and the public.
My final point is that policy makers are naive if they believe that because the majority of veterans currently attend low cost community and online colleges, that they will continue to do so and it will save the government money by not having to pay out huge sums for housing allowances. If veteran enrollments at traditional schools swells, then the original estimated costs of the bill will surely need revision. In addition, colleges may increase their tuition, in part because they know that a third party is footing the bill, particularly at community colleges that serve the educational needs of many veterans. This would have a negative affect for the rest of society, as community colleges are one of the most affordable postsecondary educational outlets, especially for working and low-income Americans.