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A Red Flag on a Red-Letter Date

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Dr. Russell Kitchner is Associate Vice President for Regulatory and Governmental Relations at American Public University System. I asked him to provide a guest blog article on the Post 9/11 GI Bill and its impact on veterans, the Nation, and higher education.

Less than three weeks after D-Day, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the signing of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as the “GI Bill of Rights.” It is likely that few Americans will note this anniversary, and likely fewer still fully comprehend the impact this landmark legislation has had on our society. Millions of veterans have benefitted directly from this initiative, and the various branches of the armed services reaped recruiting dividends as a result. American higher education also has been influenced immeasurably by the presence of veterans in its classes, and the resulting cohort of well-educated veterans has contributed to the vitality of the Nation’s economy. By any measure, the GI Bill of Rights proved to be a valuable affirmation of the gratitude owed to service members for their commitment, loyalty, and the sacrifices they made in helping to safeguard America’s security, and to promote peace throughout the world.

When introducing this landmark legislation on June 22, 1944, 65 years ago, the President stated the following: “This bill, which I have signed today, substantially carries out most of the recommendations made by me in a speech on July 28, 1943, and more specifically in messages to the Congress dated October 27, 1943 . . .” Mr. Roosevelt went on to outline the specific provisions of the bill, stating that “(I)t gives servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge, or of taking a refresher or retrainer course, not only without tuition charge up to $500 per school year, but with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies.” (Emphasis added)

I place less importance on the fact that today marks the 65th anniversary of that event than I do the irony that among the most noteworthy pieces of legislation passed by the recently concluded 110th Congress was a new, but significantly more restrictive iteration of Roosevelt’s legacy, the Post 9/11 GI Bill. On first reading, this legislation, which outlines the educational benefits that will be available to our Nation’s veterans and/or passed on to their families, appears to be a bigger and better version, both of the original and the subsequent Montgomery Bill authorized in 1984. However, a closer look reveals the fact that one fundamental provision of the Post 9/11 Bill represents a sea change in philosophy from both versions. Whereas Mr. Roosevelt stipulated that all qualifying veterans were entitled to “the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies” – a stipulation, by the way,  that was retained in all subsequent reauthorizations – Senator Jim Webb’s Post 9/11 Bill restricts that benefit from those who are pursuing their education entirely on-line.

This provision has the effect of promoting one educational format over another, and Congress has previously acknowledged that the federal government should support equally traditional and nontraditional modes of education, including provisions associated with housing expenses.  Under the Higher Education Act, “telecommunications courses” (i.e., courses offered principally through use of television, audio, or computer transmission technologies) are treated as traditional residential programs for purposes of an institution’s cost of attendance calculation, which includes housing expenses and is used to determine a student’s federal student financial aid package.  See 20 U.S.C. § 1087ll(10) (“[F]or a student receiving all or part of the student’s instruction by means of telecommunications technology, no distinction shall be made with respect to the mode of instruction in determining costs.”)  The exclusionary provision under consideration here, without justification, simply denies veterans engaged in distance learning benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled. The disconcerting irony is that distance education is very popular with service members and veterans, precisely because it promotes access to education. In fact, nearly 60 percent of existing Department of Veterans Affairs enrollment is with distance education programs.

Mr. Roosevelt’s original vision has served our service members and our Nation well for over half a century, and that vision is as relevant and clear today as it was 65 years ago. While we can only speculate on how the Roosevelt administration might have felt about on-line learning, there is no reason to suspect that he would have supported a provision that had the effect of discriminating against the majority of service members. Veteran students enrolled in on-line degree programs incur the same or comparable expenses associated with supporting a family and maintaining a household as those attending traditional brick and mortar institutions. It is my abiding hope that in the months ahead, Congress will recognize the importance of reconsidering this exclusionary language, and subsequently, that it will take all necessary steps to ensure that all veterans have the chance to pursue their educational objectives with the support of a meaningful living allowance, regardless of learning format.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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