The number of veterans at the School of General Studies is likely to decline over the next few years, as a result of the new GI Bill that will make veterans’ financial aid packages less comprehensive.
The new GI Bill, passed last December, caps tuition benefits for veterans attending private schools at $17,500 per year, adding $5,000 to $15,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for veterans attending Columbia. This year, GS has responded by dramatically increasing its financial aid budget, limiting the bill’s immediate effects. But GS’s long-term ability to fund the number of veterans who have flocked to GS in the last few years remains unclear.
This year, GS increased its financial aid budget by approximately $200,000, according to Dean of Enrollment Management Curtis Rodgers. This will allow GS to fund the 56 new veterans who enrolled this semester, who applied while the previous GI Bill was still in effect, at the level at which they would have been funded under the old rules.
“Even though the legislation has changed from its original design, we didn’t then go and reduce our rewards,” Rodgers said. “We said we’d fund at this level so we stuck to this level.”
But in the long term, Rodgers noted, GS is likely to see a decrease in its veteran population as awards decrease. The number of veterans in GS has ballooned from 64 three years ago to 222 this year, but Rodgers said it will probably level out between 180 and 200.
General Studies administrators say they are working on ways to increase their financial aid to keep attracting veterans to the school. GS Dean Peter Awn said the school is continuing to raise more funds from alumni, as well as foundations and individuals interested in helping veterans.
Another funding avenue, the Yellow Ribbon Program, may be a crucial factor in how the veteran population changes. That grant involves an agreement between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the University, through which the government matches the University’s funding.
“If we’re able to increase the Yellow Ribbon grant over time, we might be able to be at the upper end of that number, around 200 to 210,” Rodgers said, though he acknowledged that there are other pressures on their financial aid budget. “If it stays flat, it probably won’t be as large of a community.”
‘THEY LOOK AT THINGS DIFFERENTLY’
This semester, 56 veterans entered General Studies, down from 69 last semester. Rodgers said that the GS class size had gone down as a whole, and that the percentage of veterans in this year’s class was “down only slightly.”
“The fact that we were able to maintain the size of the incoming class, even within significantly reduced benefits for veteran students, is a good indication of how strong a community of veterans we have at the undergraduate level and in the university,” he said.
For students and administrators, veterans have become a crucial component of GS and the University.
“It’s fantastic to be in classroom, particularly if you’re in anthropology or history, and you’re talking about conflict and somebody can bring experience in active conflict to the table and discuss it,” said Liz Walsh, a GS student who is not a veteran. “It’s not experience from a book.”
“I love the veterans’ perspective at this school,” John Zeuner, GS, said. “They’ve had a lot of life experience, they’ve been through a lot more than other students have been through, and they look at things differently.”
Others stressed the ways in which the veteran student population has increased the relevance of the military among civilians, and at Columbia.
“Because there’s no draft anymore, most people aren’t connected to the military,” said Dan Lagana, GS and the president of the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University. “They’re not connected to the wars we’re funding or the people that are fighting the war. Having veterans in school with you, in class with you, helps bridge that divide, that disconnect.”
Zeuner said that the strong presence of veterans at GS takes from the “anti-military” image that many individuals had of Columbia due to the absence of an ROTC program since 1969.
“I think it’s a great aspect, especially when you go back to a time when Columbia lost its ROTC program, and, you know, people were saying that it was a school that was anti-military, and now it really shows that we’re going after and attracting a lot of military veterans,” he said. “It really speaks for the school and how it’s changed over the years, and the atmosphere that is here.”
University Senator Jose Robledo, GS and a veteran, added that during the ROTC debates last school year, there were “high-minded academics and left-wing radicals” who pushed forth their concerns with ROTC, but that veterans at Columbia helped moderate the conversation.
Ryan Robinson, GS and the veteran students representative for the General Studies Student Council, said that while it might sound self-serving, a decrease in the number of veterans enrolled would “change the fabric of GS.”
“Having less veterans in our classrooms, having less veterans in our student groups, and the absence of a robust MilVets community on campus that comprises a large portion of the GS population, would not be good if it was lost,” he said.
“We bring a kind of maturity and a kind of global perspective to the student body that up until very recently hasn’t been represented,” Danielle Bylund, GS and a military veteran, said.
WEIGHING THE COST
Bylund simply calls the new GI Bill “a mess.” While GS has a good academic program and a real sense of community, she said, it will be too challenging for future students to deal with the new costs.
“I would recommend that they go to a different school that’s cheaper, because you have to shoulder that entire burden yourself,” Bylund said. “A lot of these veterans are coming directly from their service. Some of them are still on terminal leave. They have limited skills in terms of paying their rent. They’ve lived in government-provided housing.”
Current students have not felt the dramatic effects of the new GI Bill, thanks to a grandfather clause passed by Congress in July which ensured students who were already accepted or enrolled would continue to receive their tuition benefits. The clause was introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who was heavily lobbied by the MilVets.
Before that grandfather clause was passed, General Studies had increased its financial aid budget by about $500,000 to attempt to cover the difference for currently-enrolled veterans.
GS was able to use some of the savings from the grandfather clause to increase funds distributed through the Yellow Ribbon program. Still, Rodgers said that the school is paying twice as much for each of this fall’s incoming veterans as it did for last year’s group.
Some students said they worry that those new costs will stop veterans from applying to Columbia, or from attending Columbia if accepted. Walsh said that friends in GS talk about how much better the previous financial benefits were.
“One of the draws of military service is that it helps you afford attending a university,” Walsh said. “And certainly GS is not cheap at all.”
Others, like Christian Zamora, GS and a military veteran, are optimistic that Columbia’s reputation, above all, will keep veterans coming to GS.
“Of course, if they’re accepted, they may end up weighing the costs and the benefits of attending here as opposed to a state school—which is a lot cheaper but doesn’t have the prestige,” Zamora said.
GS will continue to attract veterans because the University brings together traditional and untraditional students, of different ages and experiences, Awn argued.
“Students like the veterans, and frankly this is in fact the only Ivy League with a college that fully integrates these kinds of students into the undergraduate program,” he said. “So that makes it a very attractive option for the veterans because they’re getting the real thing.”
And many current students are advocating for different funding sources. Robledo suggested an alternative route for administrators to help veteran students with the costs of attending GS—taking on housing costs.
“The two big challenges that us veterans, and GS students in general, face when coming to Columbia is not just the cost of attending the University but the cost of living in New York City,” he said. “So a solution is, if they can’t help us with our financial aid, which is tuition and fees, what about our living expenses?”
Future students will have no choice but to deal with the new funding realities if they attend GS. But for many current students, the changes are more than monetary—they’re an example of the government reneging on its obligation to veterans.
Zamora said that while veterans will just have to “suck it up and just be like lots of other students” who have to be careful with their finances, the decision to cut veterans’ aid bothers him in principle.
“That’s what really hurts us, because we’re all about principles ... and values and doing what’s right, having integrity, doing what you say you’re going to do—that is what guides us,” Zamora said. “But we’re not getting that. There seems to be a lack of reciprocal promises here.”
Awn said that in some ways, the government is “abandoning its original moral commitment to veterans and their education” on which the original GI Bill was based.
“Why would you penalize a woman of enormous intellectual talent who is accepted at Columbia and wants to achieve what a Columbia education can allow her to achieve?” Awn asked.
Robledo says that he does understand why Congress cut aid for veterans attending private colleges, given the state of the economy. “It’s not a question of whether it’s fair or not, it’s a question of, right now, the country is in a tough economic situation, even veterans, so some of the things that we’d normally be used to getting, we can’t get,” he said.
For veterans, like all students, decisions will come down to weighing the costs and benefits of attending Columbia. And although that equation will soon look much different for veterans that it did last year, many current students said they were thankful for their experiences.
“With all of the critiques about money, negotiating the bureaucracy—this is the only place I would want to be,” Bylund said.