A new GI Bill that takes effect next month offers a broad expansion of education benefits for military service members, opening new opportunities for veterans such as Park City's Cody Campbell.
"It was totally surprising and amazing," said Campbell, 25, an inactive Marine sergeant who served in Iraq. "This is making Westminster [College] possible for me. Otherwise I would go to the University of Utah."
Nationwide, benefits will vary because the maximum is pegged to tuition at the most expensive public university in the veteran's state, which in Utah is $5,746 at the University of Utah. For veterans living in a low-tuition state who want to attend pricey private colleges, the benefit may be of limited value.
But the disparity shouldn't hurt Utah veterans because the state has few private schools and those few are inexpensive, particularly Brigham Young University.
So while veterans groups are crying foul in California, where there is no state tuition but private school tuition can exceed $38,000, Campbell and retired Army mechanic Jessica Snyder of Layton aren't complaining. This fall, both will enroll at Westminster, a small, private liberal arts school in Salt Lake City that has been recognized as a "veteran friendly" campus. Under the GI Bill's Yellow Ribbon program, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs covers much of private schools' tuition, while the schools cover the rest.
"I definitely would not be going to school. I would be working in a dealership as an apprentice or something," said Snyder, 24, whose husband is serving a third tour in Iraq. "Having a degree opens the door for me to do many things. You can't just get a job by saying you served in the military."
While Westminster has set aside 100 spots for veterans under the Yellow Ribbon program, only eight have been admitted so far.
"The word is just getting out and veterans are just being released from duty. We'll end up in double figures [by fall]," said Lewis Levy, Westminster's admissions director. He expects all 100 spots will be filled in the next few years.
"Utah is a prime place for this because the military has prominence here and we want to serve our local constituency," Levy said. "The veterans need to know that the opportunities are there and institutions like Westminster are opening their doors."
The U. also is participating in Yellow Ribbon for veterans who are admitted to expensive graduate programs.
"We'll participate and help out veterans in those programs that they [Department of Veterans Affairs] don't fully cover," said Paul Brinkman, a U. executive in charge of planning and budget. "We'll see the effect on undergraduates right away. We already have hundreds of vets here."
Campbell is completing an associate's degree at Salt Lake Community College and expects to study business management at Westminster, where he is excited about its intimate campus.
"The private thing suits my liking," he said. "I like to interact with teachers. I can learn more when I can discuss things with them."
Snyder left the Army in 2007 after serving four years, but has had no higher education other the NASCAR Technical Institute.
"I was a mechanic and I have outgrown that," she said.
The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act covers costs associated with attending college for vets with at least three years of service and an honorable discharge. Benefits are limited to the highest tuition at a public school in the veteran's state, which in Utah is $5,746. But schools that participate in the bill's Yellow Ribbon matching-grant program can significantly expand the tuition benefit. Participating Westminster College, for example, has spots for up to 100 service members to earn degrees without paying anything toward the school's $25,000 tuition. Under Yellow Ribbon, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs covers half the difference between the tuition at Westminster and the University of Utah; Westminster covers the rest. The bill provides separate stipends for books and housing.