Yellow Ribbon Program cuts private school costs for vets

Though in its infant stage, the newest edition of the G.I. Bill stands to make an impact at St. Thomas and other private colleges and universities.

In its previous forms, the G.I. Bill – legislation created in 1944 to assist military veterans with higher education – affected mostly state colleges and universities. That changed this past August when the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill went into effect. Within the newest form of the bill is a provision, known as the Yellow Ribbon Program, that allows private colleges and universities to partner with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in helping veterans pay tuition.

“What we’re seeing is a reaction to the rising cost of education for veterans,” said Brian Cihacek, the Brady Hall chaplain. Cihacek is also a veteran of the war in Iraq and is a graduate of St. John’s University, making him more familiar than most with the quirks of the G.I. Bill.

Before the new legislation, private institutions’ hands were tied financially as far as filling the gap between what the bill provided and what actual costs were. Now, they can help veterans make ends meet without breaking the bank.

“The newest benefit program really lets St. Thomas step up to the plate and do something rather than simply certify the students,” said Chiara Babcock, the records coordinator at the office of the university registrar. “We can participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program and help to cover those additional tuition expenses that students have.”

Traditionally, veteran tuition assistance has been pegged to the cost of the most expensive state institution. In the past, this put private schools out of reach for most veterans. What the Yellow Ribbon Program attempts to do is make up the difference in cost between public and private schools by splitting that difference between the VA and the institution.

“The Yellow Ribbon steps in to pick up the extra dollar amount,” Babcock said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Web site explains the program and how it works:

“This program allows institutions of higher learning (degree granting institutions) in the United States to voluntarily enter into an agreement with VA to fund tuition expenses that exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition rate. The institution can contribute up to 50 percent of those expenses and VA will match the same amount as the institution.”

What this means is that in Minnesota the maximum public school credit fee is $750, which is what a veteran who is eligible for 100 percent of the benefit can receive. The cost of one credit at St. Thomas is $904.50, which leaves $154.50 to be paid. In the past, a veteran had to come up with this on their own, but now the program can step in. St. Thomas can pay a maximum of $77.25, with the other half being paid by VA.

Schools participate at different levels. At St. Thomas, the most the school will put forth in an academic year is $9,500, but that hasn’t mattered much this year.

“Because the maximum fee is so high,” Babcock said, “we’re hardly using any Yellow Ribbon funds. It’s actually really nice for St. Thomas. The students get the same benefits, St. Thomas just pays a little less.”

There is a catch.

“The one main thing people have to understand is that it’s prorated,” Babcock said. “So if you aren’t eligible for 100 percent, you don’t get everything; if you aren’t attending full-time, you don’t get everything.”

Bottom line is private schools are now more affordable for veterans and it seems fair to say that schools like St. Thomas can expect to see more of them in coming years than they had in the past.

“It takes time, it takes energy to stay on it, but it’s worth it,” Cihacek said. “With the pay out rates, it’s of amazing value to people returning to college.”

This is something of which St. Thomas is definitely aware.

“Most schools,” Babcock said, “especially private schools, are anticipating that because of this new bill we will see more students just because they don’t have to pay so much for tuition.”

Matt Wolfgram can be reached at