VA to gain new authority over educational benefits for future emergencies

Congress finalized a plan to grant Veterans Affairs officials emergency authority over education allowances in the event of a future pandemic or national crisis, to ensure classes of veteran students would not be disrupted.

House lawmakers introduced the proposal last summer in recognition of “gaps” that emerged in GI Bill benefits at the start of America’s COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. The measure was approved by the Senate on December 20 and finalized by the House on December 22.

The key issue is how VA educational benefits are paid out to students who attend lecture classes remotely, rather than in person.

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Students who use the Post-9/11 GI Bill—the most popular veteran’s education allowance—receive money for tuition as well as a monthly housing allowance. Individuals enrolled in traditional in-person classes receive the full financial benefit, while students in online classes are provided with only half of the housing allowance.

The difference between half housing allowance and full payment can range from a few hundred dollars to nearly $2,000, as payment depends on the location of the student and the school.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced colleges to shift courses from physical classrooms to internet meeting rooms in spring 2020, nearly all students were reclassified to online-only, triggering a reduction in their housing allowance.

That sparked a flurry of legislative activity, with lawmakers including new powers for secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in a series of emergency pandemic laws.

They include the ability to adjust housing payments, work-study programs and other aspects of educational benefits. VA officials credit them with preventing hardship for more than 60,000 students over the past few years.

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But that authority ended last June, after most colleges and universities returned to normal operations.

The new bill allows for similar steps by VA officials in the future “should someone be negatively affected by an emergency situation.”

Such a move would require a statement from the president that the country faces a state of national emergency, or a similar legal ruling.

Veterans’ groups have voiced support for the measure as a way to ensure VA officials can more quickly support students and their families in the future. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the act into law in the coming days.