Congress on Wednesday finalized plans to extend GI Bill protections for student veterans still forced into remote classes by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, ensuring they’ll receive full benefits until next summer.
The move is expected to affect about 57,000 students currently enrolled in degree programs, according to Veterans Affairs data.
At issue is how post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are paid out to students who attend college classes remotely, rather than in-person.
Students using the veterans education benefit receive money for tuition plus a monthly housing stipend. Individuals enrolled in traditional in-person classes receive the full financial benefit, while students in online-only classes get half of that housing stipend.
But when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered college campuses across America in spring 2020, that left tens of thousands of students worried they may not have their rent payments covered because their classes were forced online.
The difference between half of a housing stipend and the full payout can range from a few hundred dollars to nearly $2,000, since the payouts depend on the location of the student and school. Making up that difference could force some individuals move out mid-semester or drop course entirely.
To avoid those types of financial problems, Congress granted VA leaders broad authority to continue paying out the full housing stipends even if students had been forced out of the classroom. That authority was set to expire on Dec. 21.
But the Senate on Wednesday finalized legislation to push that date back to summer 2022, in recognition of the ongoing transition from online to in-person classes. The measure, sponsored by Rep. David Trone, D-Md., passed the House without objection on Dec. 8.
“While we’ve made a lot of progress in getting this virus under control, many veterans continue to take classes online due to the pandemic and need the protections in this legislation in order to continue their studies,” said Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif. and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s panel on economic opportunity.
“At a time when we are trying to keep veterans housed and encourage them to pursue a higher education, the last thing we can afford is to let these protections expire and risk derailing their studies or, even worse, forcing them out of their homes.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., echoed that sentiment after the Senate’s passage of the bill.
“No veteran should ever have to face uncertainty when it comes to their future,” he said in a statement.
The measure was not seen as controversial in either chamber but took months to finalize amid other legislative priorities, frustrating advocates who warned that student veterans were facing significant financial stress as a result of the inaction.
In California alone, more than 15,000 students are still receiving full stipend payouts even though they have not fully resumed in-person classes. In some cases, the decision to remain remote lies with individuals and schools. In others, state and local regulations limit class attendance and availability.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign the measure into law in coming days.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.