For the last several years, WCET has shared about the implications on GI Benefits for Veterans who participate in courses solely online. Student utilizing GI Bill benefits who participate in a full-term course load solely at a distance are eligible through Federal law to receive only half the Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) of the eligible student who enrolls in a full-term course load that consists of a mix of distance and in-person courses.
Congress acted quickly to offer a waiver of this MHA limitation through December 2021, if the institution was forced to supply the courses at a distance due to the pandemic. However, as courses become more available face-to-face at institutions, the waiver will not remain applicable to the students participating in courses solely online.
Today, we welcome Sara Appel and Kimberly Bloodgood who will provide us with updates on an additional nuance, the elimination of the “Round-Out Rule,” that affects VA Benefits including the MHA.
Cheryl Dowd, WCET
In the last few months, several major bubbles floated to the ocean surface known as Veterans Affairs (VA) education benefits. One of these bubbles encircled the issue around the practice of the Round-Out Rule as the VA announced it was scheduled to be phased out on or after August 1, 2021. Recently though, the VA had a change of heart and agreed to keep a modified version of the rule.
What is the Round-Out Rule?
This rule allows military-affiliated students utilizing GI Bill benefits to “round out” or “round up” their final academic term course schedule with classes that may or may not apply towards their degree program to retain full-time status, thus receiving full-time benefits. If not for this tenet, students could only take courses necessary for program completion to maintain full-time status. “However, it can be incredibly difficult for students to perfectly plan their academic schedules to ensure enough required courses will be available in their final term. If there are not enough required courses available to reach full-time status, students receive significantly reduced benefits, including a lower Monthly Housing Allowance,” stated Lauren Augustine, vice president of government affairs at Student Veterans of America (personal communication, April 9, 2021). This is especially true for students who have credit transferring into their institution from other institutions and/or military service.
How Does This Impact Military-Affiliated Students?
This could deeply impact military-affiliated students financially potentially causing them to stop out or take out unnecessarily large loans so that they might complete their education. Currently a full-time GI Bill student, eligible for maximum post-9/11 benefits, may earn $7,452 in monthly housing allowance (MHA) per semester. Assuming the student is taking twelve credit hours, getting rid of a single 3 credit hour course would reduce their housing allowance to $5,962. Not to mention having to pay for the course out of pocket costing an average of $1,677 without including books, any additional fees, supplies, etc. “That full-time status ensures their housing allowance remains steady, consequently helping them complete their post-secondary education,” said Tanya Ang, vice president of the advocacy group Veterans Education Success.
Military-affiliated students who attend a typical postsecondary brick-and-mortar institution where they physically attend most of their classes will be provided an amount based on the school’s ZIP code. Does this affect online programs? Yes. The Round-Out Rule also concerns students enrolled in distance education. The Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act (GI Bill 2.0) made this change in October 2011. Military-affiliated students taking online courses are given half of the BAH’s national average (please note, this is very basic explanation and other factors may be considered in the actual BHA calculation).
What’s Next for the Round-Out Rule?
The Round-Out Rule is not in statute or regulation but is located within in the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs School Certifying Official Handbook.The VA School Certifying Official Handbook is intended for School Certifying Officials and others engaged with the certification of recipients of VA education benefits. The manual is maintained by the three Processing Offices and Education Service and is meant to be the official resource of information for VA School Certifying Officials.Even though the Round-Out Rule has been in place for many years, the VA has wanted to change its course on how they address this issue by redacting the guidance. After a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs meeting on April 14th, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the department will no longer sunset the rule and will allow the practice to continue with modification.
Legislators and education supporters welcomed the decision to not discontinue the Round-Out Rule as an affirmative move in the direction of aiding military-affiliated students obtain the maximum amount of their GI Bill benefits. “Under the new proposal, it appears they’ll be able to continue providing students with ongoing flexibility in their final term but tightening the policies on requirements to bring them in line with the GI Bill’s intent,” said Justin Hauschild, legal fellow for Student Veterans of America. Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee will continue collaborating with the VA in finding improvements to the GI Bill without damaging veterans’ degree completion plans.
What Can Institutions Do?
Institutions can be proactive by:
- attending VA approved training on this rule modification,
- determining how many military-affiliated students could be affected on your campus,
- looking at the programs that have the highest enrollment of military-affiliated students and match potential elective related courses that could be utilized if needed,
- reminding advisors of the importance of military affiliated students being in classes that are part of their program of study,
- communicating as soon as possible with the military-affiliated students who fall or potentially fall into this position, and
- working closely with State Approving Agencies on this issue (State Approving Agencies are in each state and maintains responsibility for ensuring the quality and integrity of education programs and training for the use of GI Bill benefits).
What Can Military-Affiliated Students Do?
Military-affiliated students can be proactive by:
- reviewing their schedule and contacting an academic advisor early to avoid the situation,
- ensuring their contact information is correct at the institution such as current/permanent address, and
- keeping in contact with their school certifying official.
As of April 22nd, 2021, the VA School Certifying Official Handbook does not reflect this change and the VA has not provided any specific or final details on this or any other modification that may be developed. As this issue continues to move quickly in Washington watch for news from the VA about changes to the Round-Out Rule.
Sara E. Appel,
Associate Director of Policy Initiatives,
Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC)
Director, Division of Enrollment Management Office for Veterans and Military Personnel,
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis