In a rare moment of unity, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., just passed a major expansion to the education benefits for U.S. military veterans.
The bill, called the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017, flew through both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the span of three weeks, passing both by unanimous votes. After the Senate's vote on Wednesday, the bill is headed to President Trump's desk, where it's expected he'll sign.
Veterans advocates have been pushing for improvements to the GI Bill, which was created after World War II, for a couple years. And in fact, this bill is actually the culmination of 18 separate bills.
A long-valued military benefit, the GI Bill can offer significant tuition assistance. Payments vary depending on how long a veteran served on active duty, how many credits he or she is taking, and the type of college attended—although at most public colleges, the GI Bill will cover the entire tuition bill. Since 2009, more than 350,000 veterans have earned postsecondary certificates and degrees through the GI Bill.
Lawmakers plan to pay for the expanded benefits—which will cost $3 billion over 10 years—by decreasing living stipends to GI Bill recipients so that they fall in line with active-duty service members' basic housing allowance.
Here are the bill's biggest changes for student veterans.
It eliminates the time limit to use benefits. In one of its most prominent changes, the bill does away with benefit expiration dates for any new enlistees—hence its nickname, the "Forever GI Bill." Until now, veterans had 15 years after they were discharged to use the money. This will help adult veterans return to school or retrain for a changing job market.
It expands access to a wider group of service members. National Guard and Reserve members will now be eligible for expanded education benefits. And any member who receives a Purple Heart—regardless of how long they have served—will be eligible for the full benefits.
It restores benefits for veterans whose colleges shut down in the middle of the semester. This provision is specifically designed to help veterans affected by the abrupt closures of massive for-profit chains in recent years, and to shield veterans from future closures. Any veteran who attends a college that closes in the middle of a semester will have that semester's benefits fully restored.
It gives an extra boost to students in STEM programs. The expansion emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math degrees by offering additional money to veterans enrolled in those programs. Veterans would have to apply for a specific STEM scholarship, and could get either nine months of additional GI Bill benefits or a lump sum of $30,000. (The scholarship is limited to $100 million a year in aggregate benefits.)
It (hopefully) eases the red tape for veterans trying to access their benefits. Among its other provisions, the bill also has one critical, but less flashy, component: more resources dedicated to technology and training aimed at making the program run more smoothly. Specifically, it sets aside $30 million to improve information technology for GI Bill claims processing at the Veterans Benefits Administration, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also requires the department to provide training requirements for school certifying officers—the college staff members who are responsible for completing all the paperwork to verify that an enrolled student is eligible for benefits.