Helping Student Veterans Amid the Coronavirus Crisis

As anyone with college-age kids knows, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the closure of colleges and universities across the country. Uncertainty among students is rampant as many wonder how classes will be administered or when in-person teaching will resume. For student veterans, this uncertainty has been overshadowed by the fear of losing a monthly housing allowance they earned as part of their veteran education benefits.

Many veterans earned the opportunity to go to school at no cost, or at a significantly reduced amount, and receive a housing allowance due to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Under this long-standing program, the federal government provides necessary financial support to veterans so they may continue their education. One of the ways it does this is by tying the level of support to the type of classes students are enrolled in: specifically, housing allowances are lower for online classes.

With campuses closed and all courses transitioned to online for the remainder of the semester, this presented a potentially devastating challenge to our student veterans.

Of the over 1 million student veterans using GI Bill benefits to pursue a post-secondary degree, around half have children and more than 60 percent are first-generation students. In IAVA’s latest member survey, 93 percent of IAVA members reported having used, or that they are currently using or planning to transfer, their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit. Seventy-nine percent agree that the Post-9/11 GI Bill is essential to military recruitment and 87 percent believe it is extremely or very important for a successful transition to civilian life.

For this population of students, the possibility of losing their GI Bill allowances due to school closures or transition to online classes was devastating. The GI Bill allows veterans to pursue a degree without a substantial financial burden. Our veterans earned these benefits with their service, protecting our country and citizens; this is how we serve them.

But when GI Bill payments have been threatened, suspended or lowered in the past, veterans have faced catastrophic financial distress and their livelihood and stability has been at imminent risk. Many veterans depend on these funds to pay rent, buy food and ensure their families’ basic needs are met. Many times over the years, we have come to the aid of veterans whose benefits were at stake, and we must step up once again during this crisis.

Over a week ago, 50 veteran service organizations including IAVA, Congress, and the president fast-tracked bipartisan legislation (S. 3503) to continue full GI Bill housing payments through Dec. 21, 2020, for all student veterans who faced imminent cuts due to the recent switch to online learning from in-person courses.

But the House Veterans Affairs Committee still felt more action was needed to help veterans during this stressful time and introduced the Student Veteran Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6322). This legislation introduced by Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and ranking member Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) improves upon the previously passed bill and ensures continuity of these allowances if a school is closed due to an emergency situation. Specifically, it ensures the student would not lose the semester of their GI Bill, and it continues to pay for work study students, among other provisions. The payments under this bill are also extended through Dec. 21. The committee wasted no time, and within a week, H.R. 6322 passed the House! A Senate companion has not yet been introduced.

Chairman Takano explained, “Under this bipartisan legislation, we can ensure no students have their housing cut off, lose their work study payment, exhaust their disaster housing stipend continuation payments, or lose their benefits due to a school closure from COVID-19.”

I commend Congress for taking the initiative to ensure our student veterans are protected financially during the coronavirus crisis. Now is not the time to play partisan politics and abandon our veterans. By ensuring access to education we can better prepare them for the transition to the civilian workforce and to advance their careers – not even a pandemic should come in the way of this duty as Americans.

Both of these legislative efforts show that, when times are tough, we stand by our veterans, upholding our commitment to provide the resources necessary to thrive back home. On behalf of IAVA and our members, thank you to all the members of Congress who are working tirelessly to do just that. Now, it is up to the Senate to expeditiously approve the House-passed Student Veteran Coronavirus Response Act and send it to the president. We urge them to do their part.

Jeremy Butler is the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

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