Note: Before the December 2021 holiday break, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to extend COVID flexibility provisions and make these important technical fixes to veterans education benefits laws. This has been a long and arduous process—some changes we’ve been working on for over a year—and we’re pleased that student veterans and their families will finally see some relief.
By Terry W. Hartle
Meet Annie Whitney. Annie was born into a family with a long record of military service—her father, Frank Whitney, was a career service member who had tours of duty in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. It was a long and difficult road for her family, but there was a silver lining: her father’s long military service allowed him to transfer his GI Bill benefits to Annie. This assistance supported her through two years of undergraduate study and her first year at Harvard Law School.
Annie wants to use her legal skills to help serve refugees and asylum seekers. Last winter, she was admitted to Oxford University’s master of science in refugee and forced migration studies program, and decided to defer her law studies for a year to pursue this exceptional opportunity.
“There is no master’s degree like it on Earth, no program that combines international law, anthropology, and thesis-writing in the field of forced migration all while gathering students and professors from all corners of the world,” she wrote to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee earlier this year. “I extensively researched similar programs in the United States. None exists. When I was admitted to this master’s degree at Oxford, I immediately knew I would attend because I knew I had the GI Bill to support me.”
Well, maybe not.
In late 2020, Congress passed the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020. Included in the legislation were important provisions designed to protect student veterans from unscrupulous schools and ensure that they can use their GI Bill benefits to complete a quality postsecondary education.
The bill was noncontroversial and had broad bipartisan support. This is not surprising: the GI Bill has always enjoyed unwavering bipartisan popularity. But as often happens, unintended consequences in the new law created problems, and these problems now threaten to disrupt or end the education of thousands of GI Bill recipients.
Which brings us back to Annie. The new law was written to help veterans studying at American colleges and universities. Nobody thought about veterans who use their benefits at foreign universities, and the new law required sharing of student data that in many cases was incompatible with their own domestic privacy laws. Today, some of the best foreign universities can no longer participate in the GI Bill program.
By the time the provision took effect this August, it was too late for Annie. Already enrolled in Oxford, she was unable to return to Harvard for the fall semester. in the absence of the GI Bill, she borrowed the maximum in federal student loans. To make matters worse, because GI Bill benefits must be used before her 26th birthday, Annie—who turns 26 next May—will not be able to use the GI Bill when she returns to Harvard.
Law school graduates often earn huge starting salaries if they work for a major law firm. But those who pursue public service law like Annie are likely to earn about the same amount as a public school teacher. So for Annie, like many other college graduates, repaying student loans is a major concern.
This problem is not the only one in Isakson Roe that needs correction. For example, Congress needs to make clear that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ rules for recruiting international students are identical to the longstanding rules at the Department of Education. And while it is solving these issues, Congress should also tackle two other fixes that are desperately needed for veterans. Lawmakers must extend an expiring provision ensuring that veterans’ benefits are not eliminated if a campus needs to move instruction online due to the pandemic, and address the “rounding out rule” to make sure that veterans’ benefits are not inadvertently cut during the last term before they graduate.
The solutions are technical, but there is no substantive opposition to them. However, in our hyper-partisan, gridlocked political culture, Congress has been unable to come together to pass a bill to make these changes, at least so far.
There is no denying that over the past decade, the business of lawmaking has slowed to a crawl, so much so that even small, quick, widely supported legislative fixes can be a challenge. Often these noncontroversial measures get trapped behind mountains of bigger bills and higher-profile issues. Other times, the solutions get taken hostage in pursuit of broader political machinations.
Thankfully, Chairmen Jon Tester and Mark Takano and Ranking Members Jerry Moran and Mike Bost, the leaders of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, have committed to getting this legislation done before the end of the year.
Let’s hope it happens. Winter semester at most colleges and universities starts in little more than a month. And for tens of thousands of veterans who hope to start or continue their education, time is running out.