NEW YORK -- Thousands of student veterans attending private colleges on the Post-9/11 GI Bill cleared the latest hurdle in an ongoing battle to secure promised tuition dollars on Wednesday.
Since going into effect in August 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has provided increased educational assistance for veterans returning home from war. It entitled a veteran who served for a minimum of three years after 9/11 to a full tuition subsidy at a public college. An additional provision called the Yellow Ribbon Program enabled thousands more veterans at private schools to attend college free of cost.
But then Congress changed the rules. At the end of last year, it voted to cap tuition assistance for out-of-state veterans attending public colleges at in-state public rates and, beginning this upcoming August, limit tuition assistance for veterans attending private schools at $17,500 per year.
In recent months, both Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have introduced legislation aimed at grandfathering in veterans currently enrolled in private schools whose tuition would skyrocket in August -- about 30,000 veterans, according to Miller's office.
Schumer's bill made its way through the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday afternoon, securing the unanimous support of all 15 members. In May, Miller's legislation gained unanimous approval in the House with a vote of 398-0.
"This legislation will fix this inequity and ensure that our veterans receive the full benefits they were promised and rightly deserve. It will make sure we don't change the rules in the middle of the game," Schumer said in a statement. While veterans at private schools would be covered under both bills, neither Schumer nor Miller's legislation covers out-of-state veterans attending public schools.
"With the Post-9/11 GI Bill, we made great strides towards helping all veterans who want to get a college education get one. But recent changes to the law, while enhancing benefits for many veterans, unfortunately cut benefits for others," said Schumer. "We should not turn our backs on the brave men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead should be doing everything we can to ensure they have the educational opportunities they deserve."
Schumer and Miller's bills would allow students who were enrolled before the new rules take effect to continue using their existing benefits until they graduate. Schumer's protection extends to students who were enrolled by January 2011; it sunsets in December of 2014. Miller's legislation includes students who enrolled prior to April 1, 2011.
If Schumer's legislation ultimately passes, the differences will need to be tackled in conference, confirmed by both chambers of Congress and then sent to the President for his approval.
For the time being, anyway, many veterans remain cautious in their optimism.
Shandan Lussenden, a 29-year-old Army veteran, is currently a junior at Columbia University in New York. Prior to enrolling in college, Lussenden completed two tours of duty in Iraq, where he controlled unmanned airplanes and collected intelligence. He is the first member of his immediate family to attend college.
Since classes ended in May, Lussenden has carefully monitored the legislation's progress -- facing a $30,000 increase in tuition if he's not grandfathered in. Lussenden sees both the unanimous vote in the House and now the Senate Committee as hopeful signs.
Still, the clock is ticking.
"August is quickly approaching," said Lussenden, who is interning at Fox Cable Networks in Los Angeles. "My greatest concern is being able to return to school in September. We're almost out of time."