When the new GI Bill kicks in Aug. 1, the government's best-known education program for veterans will get the biggest boost since its World War II-era creation. But the benefit is hardly the "Government Issue," one-size-fits-all standard the name implies.
In fact, depending on where service members and veterans decide to attend college, they could receive a full ride, or very little.
An Associated Press review of state-by-state benefits under the new bill shows huge discrepancies in the amount veterans can receive.
— Veterans attending New Hampshire colleges such as Dartmouth might get $25,000 from the government each year, and in Dartmouth's case, essentially a free ride, thanks to an additional grant from the Ivy League school. But in neighboring Massachusetts, it is a different story. At that state's numerous private schools — many just as expensive as Dartmouth — the government's baseline tuition benefit is only about $2,200 a year.
— Veterans who choose a private school in Texas could get close to $20,000 a semester from the government for a typical course load. Those picking schools in California will get nothing for tuition.
The explanation stems from the formula the government created, as well as a much-criticized decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs on how to implement the law.
The new GI Bill covers full in-state undergraduate tuition and fees at any public college. That's far more generous than the old GI Bill, which provides a monthly stipend that is the same from state to state.
But Congress also wanted to help veterans attend often pricier private schools. So the new bill offers them an amount equal to the tuition at the most expensive public college in the same state.
That penalizes veterans going to private colleges in states that have kept their public university tuition low.
As a result, the new GI Bill is a great deal for such vets in states like New Hampshire, New York and Texas; a pretty good one in states like Ohio; and hardly any deal at all in Massachusetts and especially California, where the state constitution prohibits public universities from charging tuition. Instead, California's public universities typically charge "fees" of several thousand dollars per year.
Critics argue the Department of Veterans Affairs misinterpreted the law and should have combined tuition and fees in coming up with reimbursement levels. That would have put the total California benefit at around $13,000 per year.
Anthony Brooks, a 26-year-old former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, will get a mere $5,000 toward the $38,570 tuition charged at the private University of Southern California — and half of that comes from USC through the government's Yellow Ribbon matching-grant program.
"It's depressing, actually. It's putting states up against each other," said Brooks, who plans to become a doctor. He added: "We all fought for our country. It just seems unfair."
The VA says its hands were tied by Congress.
"It is a valid question concerning why we would pay X in State A versus how much we would pay in State B, but the statute defines the kinds of programs we would account for," said Keith Wilson, the department's director of educational services.
Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill last year, offering veterans the most significant expansion of educational benefits since the original GI Bill in 1944. The VA expects nearly half a million veterans to participate in the coming year.
The benefits — including new, separate stipends for housing and books — kick in after three years of active duty, and some of them are transferable to family members.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., has introduced legislation that would correct the discrepancy in California.
"California's generosity on state tuition was intended to keep college costs down, not inadvertently increase costs for the state's veterans," said Lindsey Mask, a spokeswoman for McKeon.
In the meantime, education and veterans groups are fielding calls from veterans confused over how much they can get.
"What should be a simple number has turned into some kind of Frankenstein-like monster that nobody will be able to understand," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education.
About 80 percent of veterans tapping the new bill are expected to attend public institutions. But some of the remaining 20 percent — those planning to attend private colleges, graduate schools and the for-profit institutions that are hugely popular with veterans — are angry.
"On paper, this is an amazing new GI bill. It's an amazing plan," said Matthew Collins, a former Army specialist who started a Facebook group criticizing the system.
He plans to attend California Baptist University, affordable only because it is making a $10,000-per-veteran contribution under Yellow Ribbon — something many California colleges are unable to offer.
"I just don't think they truly thought it through," Collins said.