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John J. Cronin Headshot
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New G.I Bill Still Lags Behind the Times

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As veterans, we have all spent part of the last ten years serving our country in the armed forces. Now that we have proudly returned to the states, we are back with our families and ready to move forward with the next phase of our lives. While we are taking different career paths, all four of us decided that furthering our education was the first step.

After careful consideration, each of us chose to attend a different online program. Two of us started our degrees while in the armed forces, and it was the only way we could fit education into the travel demands of our service.

Online degrees meet our needs and give us the flexibility to spend time with our families and move locations as needed. But now that our education is underway, we have learned that the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which Congress passed in July 2008, doesn't offer us the same benefits as our fellow veterans simply because we chose online schools.

While the new bill increases support for tuition, books and expenses, it sorts veterans into two categories when deciding the housing stipend. For veterans who choose campus-based schools, the benefit increases from the $1,321 cost-of-living stipend available under the old bill to more than $2,000 a month under the new law. For veterans taking online courses, there is no housing stipend at all.

This is the GI bill for our generation, but it still clings to an anti-technology bias about how we should earn our degrees. We do get to choose whether to apply our benefits from the Post-9/11 GI bill or the old Montgomery GI Bill, but either option leaves us and other online students with fewer benefits than our fellow soldiers attending traditional schools under the new law. This presents a substantial and unfair choice to the thousands of us veterans who wish to study online--a choice that veterans at other schools don't have to make.

This policy is fundamentally inconsistent since most established federal policies support distance education and Department of Education studies show that the quality of instruction in online programs equals and even exceeds that of campus-based schools. Just a few weeks ago, the Obama administration unveiled a plan to increase the number of online courses at community colleges. So why are veterans in online programs being segregated to determine our benefits?

According to the Department of Defense, more than 387,000 active duty military are studying online--that's 60 percent of all soldiers who take classes. In 2007, 31,000 veterans enrolled in school were at online institutions and six of the top 25 universities serving veterans are online institutions.

Many of us still work in the armed services, and we're required to travel frequently. Several of us have children at home and spouses to care for. No way could we drive to campus, find parking and sit in class three times a week. Online institutions let us do our school work during our lunch breaks, post to class discussions over the weekends and pursue research late at night.

We each study different fields--history, counseling, health science--and are earning these degrees for different reasons, we all plan to continue working for our country. One of us plans to become an officer, two of us are studying counseling to help our fellow veterans, and one of us wants to eventually become a doctor. These are all goals that require degrees.

Recognizing the fundamental inequality of the new housing stipend benefit, Congressman Bob Filner has been working to pass legislation to fix this problem. He has received considerable support, but he needs more in order to pass legislation this year. We ask Congress to move quickly and enact legislation that addresses this issue. Denying all veterans the full benefit--including the housing stipend--has the very real effect of limiting their academic options.

None of us joined the armed forces for the educational benefits; we joined to serve our country. Why, then, is our country denying us benefits rightly earned just because of the universities we chose?

Eric Baylor, CTR2(SW), John J. Cronin, USMC/RET., Margaret Varela, and Kenneth Wilson all served in the Armed Forces and are now enrolled in online degree programs.