Tuition ammunition

MA.GIBILL

Tuition Ammunition

New G.I. bill offers midstate veterans a full ride to Mercer, Wesleyan

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009

From a young age, Elyse Jones wanted to be a dermatologist.

But when she was called to active duty with the Air Force in 2002, Jones, who was 19 at the time, almost gave up her plans to go to college.

“I put everything on hold, and I wasn’t sure of what would happen or if I’d be able to go to school in the future at all,” she said.

Now, the 26-year-old may finally be getting the chance. Beginning next month, her classes at Wesleyan College should be covered under new benefits she earned from her military duty.

Jones is one of the many midstate service members who plans to reap the benefits of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill that takes effect in August.

Under the bill, a limited number of qualified Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans will be able to attend private colleges such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College for free or minimal tuition. And they will get expanded benefits at public institutions, too.

Dan Hines, a third-year Mercer law student, hopes to be one of the five students who will receive an additional $4,000 in financial assistance in the fall, half of which will come from federal coffers.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of this program,” said Hines, who served 13 months in Iraq and is president of the Mercer Law Military Veterans Association.

In the past, the federal government has helped pay for veterans’ tuition and fees at private colleges, but only up to an amount that matched the tuition at the most expensive public college in the state.

Yet at pricier private institutions such as Wesleyan and Mercer University, tuition exceeds that cap, which in the past has often forced service members either to make up the difference themselves or choose a public school instead.

However, under the Yellow Ribbon campaign — a component of the new bill — the government and participating private colleges will jointly cover the remaining difference to pay the entire tuition cost. At Mercer and Wesleyan in Macon, that means qualified veterans will receive a full scholarship.

According to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mercer will contribute $11,625 per student, per year for 17 undergraduate students, while Wesleyan will contribute $8,750 for 10 students. Veterans Affairs will then match those amounts.

Mercer also has committed to covering the difference for at least 28 veterans to attend its graduate schools and regional academic centers and will contribute $2,000 in assistance to five veterans attending its law school.

A number of other veterans already have expressed interest in taking advantage of the program to attend Mercer, said Rick Goddard, who’s heading up the program at the school.

“These are veterans who may not necessarily have been able to afford Mercer without this assistance,” Goddard said. “And Mercer’s glad to have them. They bring a world of experience to the university, and the university feels an obligation to serve them.”

At least six veterans plan to attend Wesleyan in the fall using Yellow Ribbon money, Susan Welsh, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

At public colleges, veterans can expect to see enhanced benefits, too, though not as dramatic of improvements as their peers in private institutions are seeing.

In keeping with past GI bills, all qualified service members at state schools would still receive free tuition, but they now can transfer their benefits to family members more easily and may, in some cases, receive higher living stipends, said Tammie Burke, who handles VA programs at Georgia College & State University.

But while the bill does provide some new advantages to students at state colleges, it’s not expected to be a major change.

“At GCSU, it’s going to improve the way in which student veterans receive benefits, but it’s not really going to affect the amount of benefits they receive,” Burke said.

Officials at Macon State College and Fort Valley State University echoed Burke’s sentiments, saying that while the bill is a great improvement, it should not cause any major influx in veteran enrollment.

The new bill does have stipulations. To qualify for full assistance, veterans must have served at least 36 months for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Waugh said. Other service — such as Homeland Security missions or participation in the Active Guard and Reserve Program — may not qualify for benefits under the bill.

As for Jones, she’s getting the chance to attend a school she might not have been able to afford otherwise.

“I love the small, private setting of Wesleyan,” she said. “It gives me opportunities I might not have gotten at a big state school.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.