The Department of Veterans Affairs is set to remove a relatively obscure GI Bill rule, which could cost beneficiaries thousands of dollars. But Congress is poised to act if the agency doesn't reverse course before a critical deadline this summer.
The so-called "rounding out" rule will be phased out Aug. 1, according to the VA. Currently, a GI Bill student can round out a college schedule with non-required classes to bring their course load to a full-term schedule once per program. This allows students to continue to receive full-time benefits, such as a larger housing allowance.
For example, if a student needs 60 hours to obtain a degree and completed all the required courses in 57 hours, they could add a 3-credit-hour course unrelated to their major to their schedule, which would be covered under the GI Bill and prevent them from missing out on any full-time benefits.
When asked about the move during a congressional hearing last week, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he had never heard about rounding out or the Trump administration's decision to scrub it. He added that he would follow up with lawmakers.
Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., who chairs the VA committee subpanel on economic opportunity, said he hopes the VA simply reverses the decision to sunset rounding out.
"It impacts a whole lot of student veterans later this year if we don't get out in front of it," Levin said in an interview with Military.com. "It's a policy that will hurt a lot of veterans."
Yet lawmakers might have to step in with legislation if the VA lets the rounding out rule die in August. Either the VA will need to make a decision before then, or Congress will have to fast-track legislation so as not to impact students in the fall semester.
"Hopefully, that won't be necessary, but we'll look at whatever alternatives there are," Levin added. "I hope it will be as simple as reversing the decision. I hope Secretary McDonough reconsiders what the past administration decided to do."
It is unclear how many students have used the rounding out rule, but it is difficult to perfectly map out four years of schooling. Dropping just one class from a schedule could be detrimental to a GI Bill student's income, costing them thousands of dollars in a single semester.
Texas has the largest number of GI Bill beneficiaries in school, with 67,578 students, according to VA data. The University of Texas at San Antonio has one of the state's largest populations of GI Bill students, with 3,260 enrollees.
Right now, a full-time GI Bill student eligible for full post-9/11 benefits will earn $7,452 in housing allowance per semester at the school. Getting rid of a single course would reduce that to $5,962.
The housing allowance is much larger in parts of the country with high costs of living. In Manhattan, students bring in $14,553 per semester. Dropping to part-time status would bring in a maximum of $11,642 per semester.
The VA is the second largest government agency in terms of size and budget. Its budget has ballooned over the years, and the department might be seeking to cut costs partly by not paying for what are ultimately unnecessary college courses. In 2001, the VA budget was $48 billion; now, it's over $250 billion.
The housing allowance is largely seen as one of the biggest benefits and sharpest economic tools for veterans to be successful after the military. Gutting a major benefit with virtually no warning could have serious consequences for students and would likely draw the immediate ire of advocates and lawmakers.
"That full-time status ensures their housing allowance remains steady, consequently helping them complete their post-secondary education," said Tanya Ang, vice president of advocacy group Veterans Education Success. "VA has been able to adequately address this situation for years, so it only makes sense they continue to do so without the intervention of Congress."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.