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Education Benefits: Then & Now

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  • By Ryan Mattox
Education benefits and opportunities available to Airmen today have come a long way since their beginning at the end of World War II. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly know as the GI Bill of Rights, was said to be one of the most important pieces of legislation for servicemembers at that time. However, the act almost didn't pass. According to historians a the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the arguments Congress had against the GI Bill of Rights was the idea of paying unemployed veterans $20 a week. Some in Congress believed the bill would diminish a servicemember's incentive to look for work. Others questioned the idea of sending battle-hardened veterans to colleges and universities, when at the time, it was a privilege reserved for the affluent. Despite those arguments, Congress eventually agreed something had to be done to help veterans transition into civilian life. On June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law and made the Veterans Administration responsible for carrying out the law's key provisions: education and training. 

Before the war, a college education or finding employment were difficult to obtain for most veterans. After the war and thanks to the GI Bill, millions who would have flooded the job market without an advanced degree or trade-school training, instead elected to get their education. According to VA statistics, in 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill ended, July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of the 16 million World War II veterans had used the benefits.
From July 1956 to 1984, several forms of educational benefits were in effect. The Vietnam-era GI Bill (benefits that preceded the war) ran Feb. 1, 1955, to Dec. 31, 1976; the post-Vietnam era Veterans Education Assistance Program ran Jan. 1, 1977, to June 30, 1985; the Montgomery GI Bill began July 1, 1985, and continues until the new Post 9/11 GI Bill kicks off Aug. 1, 2009. 

Until that time, today's bill was revamped from the original by Mississippi Congressman Gillespie V. Montgomery in 1984, known as the Montgomery GI Bill or MGIB. In 2008, the GI Bill was once again updated. The new law gives veterans with active-duty service on, or after, Sept. 11, 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover more educational expenses, and provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to a spouse or to their children.
These educational benefits for servicemembers have long been a huge incentive for individuals to join the Air Force and have opened doors for them after completing their military service commitments. 

"We have talked to many recruiters, and the number-one reason people come into the Air Force is the educational benefits," said Master Sgt. Eric Culver, the 37th Mission Support Squadron superintendent of education services at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. "The kids today are joining up to take advantage of what we have to offer them. It is a huge recruiting tool for recruiters out in the field."
Not only have GI Bill benefits given young people a reason to join the Air Force and opened doors for them after they have served, but programs like the Air Force Military Tuition Assistance program have given those who already are serving a reason to continue to serve their country and help themselves create opportunities to accomplish their educational goals. 

The tuition assistance program is a quality-of-life program that provides tuition and certain fees for college courses taken by Airmen working on their education. Tuition assistance is capped at $250 per semester hour or $166 per quarter hour and is restricted to a maximum of $4,500 per fiscal year. 

The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard also have tuition assistance programs.
However, for the Air National Guard, TA benefits vary from state to state and each state has specific requirements and qualifications for those benefits. 

Airmen in the Air Force Reserve can receive $250 per semester hour not to exceed $4,500 annually in tuition assistance. To receive the benefit, Reservists must be pursuing an associate's or bachelor's degree. Reservists who are pursuing a master's degree can receive up to $187.50 per semester hour not to exceed $3,500 annually. 

With more than 287,000 enrollments and 90,900 Airmen using tuition assistance, the Air Force provided $164 million for the program in fiscal 2007. The use of tuition assistance has helped those Airmen earn more than 22,000 associate's degrees, more than 5,000 baccalaureate degrees and 5,000 master's degrees in fiscal 2007.
Tuition assistance is authorized for college goals below the doctorate level. An education plan must be on file with a base education office. 

"The [TA] program is one of the most frequent reasons given for enlisting and re-enlisting in the Air Force," said Billy Thompson, chief of the 37th MSS Education Services Flight at Lackland AFB. 

Tuition assistance started out as a program that paid 75 percent of an individual's tuition. On Jan. 6, 1997, it changed to a rate of 100 percent, with implementation no later than fical 1999. 

"We offer right now - under the current program - $4,500 a year in tuition assistance that is available to every individual who is on active duty," said Sergeant Culver.
The program also provided another opportunity for Airmen to get their degrees while on active duty. Airmen like retired Senior Master Sgt. Robert Bates, now a civilian employee with the 37th MSS education technician at Lackland AFB, went to school while on active duty using tuition assistance. 

Airmen who joined the Air Force and signed up for the Montgomery GI Bill had another resource to tap into while on active duty tuition called "Top-Up." The program began Oct. 30, 2000. 

"This was the first time funds from two different government sources could be used for the same course," Mr. Thompson said. "We pay our 100 percent TA up to $750 per three-semester hour course; if the cost is more than $750 then the individual can use his MGIB to supplement under the Top-Up program. For those without the MGIB, there are other types of federal financial aid in the forms of grants and loans which can be applied for to cover the extra costs, including books." 

For Airmen who put their educational goals on hold until they complete their service to the country, they have the MGIB or will have the Post 9/11 GI Bill. No matter which program they use, Mr. Thompson recommends Airmen use their benefits to their advantage, which would be to use tuition assistance first while on active duty and to apply for scholarships and financial aid available to servicemembers. 

He also recommends that once guidelines for the new GI Bill are issued, people will have to watch for the announcement and follow the written guidelines on how to sign themselves up. It'snot going to be automatic. At the appropriate time, Airmen will have to switch. 

Many Guardsmen and Reservists qualify for the MGIB based on their prior active-duty service. Most who don't qualify still can fund their education requirements using the Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve. The MGIB-SR program provides a maximum of $329 per month, not to exceed 36 months for education expenses. 

For some, the benefits Airmen and veterans use to accomplish their educational goals, did more than just help them in their careers. It also helped them adjust to civilian life. 

Reprinted from the January-February 2009 issue of the Airman