A loophole in federal law could leave thousands of student veterans unable to pay rent as universities switch to online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As hundreds of universities convert classes from in-person to online, veterans who rely on funds from the GI bill to pay for tuition and housing may see those payments slashed in accord with regulations for distance learning. Members of Congress in both chambers and parties are scrambling to correct the issue, but face the challenges of recesses and health concerns.
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In practice, thousands of student vets and their families could be left without the cash they need to pay rent, stranding those who have served their country alongside the millions of other Americans unsure of how the coronavirus will affect their economic prospects.
The source of the problem is in simple statutory language. Under the post-9/11 GI Bill, the federal government pays partial tuition and housing costs for veterans enrolled at universities. The amounts of those reimbursements, however, depend on whether a student is taking classes in person or online. Distance learners' monthly housing allowance is about half of what in-person students receive, and their classes must be specifically registered as online in order to qualify for tuition coverage.
Those are both big problems in the current crisis. A House of Representatives aide working on Veterans' Affairs told the Washington Free Beacon that if students' classes suddenly go online, but those classes have not been approved for online learning, veteran students "are now ineligible for GI Bill payments." Even if classes are approved, however, many vets will suddenly find their housing stipend "significantly smaller," leaving some struggling to pay the bills.
Student Veterans of America (SVA), a nonprofit, told lawmakers in a letter obtained by the Free Beacon that it estimates campus closures will affect "tens of thousands" of GI bill beneficiaries, as well as "spouses and children who depend on housing allowances as a family."
SVA in its letter called on Congress to act swiftly, granting the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to "administer VA education benefits by considering prior on-site courses as continuing on-site regardless of class changes implemented for emergency or health-related purposes." In plain English, that means student vets' online classes would be treated as though they were still in-person for purposes of GI Bill payments.
There are two bills already in the works. One, introduced by Sens. Jerry Moran (R., Kans.) and Jon Tester (D., Mont.), passed late Monday evening with universal assent. Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.) introduced a companion version in the House, on Tuesday asking "Speaker Pelosi and my colleagues in the House to act with similar urgency and pass this bill as soon as possible."
"Hundreds of thousands of veterans, dependents, and spouses are counting on us," Roe added.
The House, however, is currently in recess and may not return until the next round of coronavirus-related legislation is ready. Politico reported that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) had told Democrats not to expect to return by March 23, as House leadership weighs the need for legislation against the risk of the virus for Congress's oldest members. That may leave many vets and their families without a legislative fix as, like thousands of other Americans, they wait for the rent to come due.
Update 5:32 p.m.: This post has been updated.