Lawmakers are considering overhauling the Montgomery GI Bill program amid concerns from advocates that most new service members are paying into the education benefit despite no real value to them

“(The Montgomery GI Bill) is now little more than a superfluous tax on troops,” Will Hubbard, chief of staff of Student Veterans of America, told lawmakers during a congressional hearing on the issue Wednesday.

“Except for a few niche scenarios, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides more generous resources and better overall value. Despite this, the (older program) lingers on through the automatic enrollment of new service members who are not fully informed of the differences of these education programs.”

Until a decade ago, the Montgomery GI Bill was the main college education benefit troops and veterans used to pursue higher education after their military careers. To participate in that program, enrollees must pay $1,200 in their first year after enlisting. Individuals who did so could receive 36 months of monthly education benefits of nearly $2,000 last semester.

But at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, advocates argued that program hadn’t kept pace with the cost of college. They successfully pushed for the creation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, which awards significantly more generous benefits (full in-state tuition for 36 months, plus a monthly housing stipend) without any enrollment fees.

When that new benefit was finalized in 2009, lawmakers opted not to eliminate the Montgomery GI Bill program to ensure less disruption and more choices for veterans using military education benefits. It has remained even as the vast majority of users shifted to the newer program, with an average of 136,000 new enrollees annually.

Fewer than 6 percent of veterans eligible for both education benefit programs chose the Montgomery GI Bill in recent years. Hubbard said that lead to nearly $145 million in collected fees going unspent.

SVA and other veterans advocates said that presents a major problem for new recruits, who are still being told to pay into the program even though they’ll likely never gain any benefit from it.

In most cases, if veterans choose the more generous Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, they cannot use the Montgomery GI Bill program and cannot get their enrollment fees refunded. Advocates note that to younger troops — some of whom make only about $20,000 their first year — that enrollment fee represents a major financial loss.

“Many of our members have stated if they knew more about the Montgomery GI Bill, they may not have opted to pay $1,200 for a program they would never use,” Veterans of Foreign Wars Deputy Legislative Director Patrick Murray told lawmakers at the hearing.

Defense Department officials said before enrollment, all new recruits are given a briefing on the differences between the two education benefits programs to minimize confusion.

“We explain to recruits that they should carefully consider the type of education they wish to pursue before electing one program or the other,” Defense Department spokeswoman Air Force Tech. Sgt. Evelyn Chavez said in a statement. “To be clear, no instructor encourages a recruit to choose one program over the other.”

But Hubbard and SVA officials said those briefings often amount to explanations of how to enroll in the Montgomery GI Bill program — not a real analysis of the program differences — and come at a time when recruits are bombarded with other entry and transition information. And they still require troops to opt out of the program, rather than making participation a conscious choice.

SVA has pushed for a sunset of the program and a move away from automatic enrollment. Lawmakers are considering legislation to at least push those decisions (and the $100 monthly payments for the first year) back six months.

Hubbard said that move would give troops more time to get acclimated to military life and research the different education options, which his group sees as a step in the right direction for future military students.

Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee have offered support for the plan but have not yet scheduled a timeline for advancing the legislation. Similar proposals are also under discussion in the Senate.

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.

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