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Opening Statement of Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of South Dakota

Today we have thirteen bills before us that seek to: protect our nation’s veterans from possible foreclosure and financial burdens incurred while serving one’s country; update VA housing construction guidelines; expand education programs while meeting the current retention needs of the Armed Forces; strengthen employment and reemployment rights for returning service members and veterans; and minimize recidivism among incarcerated veterans. 

According to a Congressional Research Service Report updated January 25, 2008 “the original GI Bill provided up to $500 annually for education expenses.  This is the equivalent of an estimated $5,890 in 2007 dollars.  An additional $50 was provided monthly for living expenses in 1944, which is equivalent to $589 monthly, or $5,301 annually in 2007 dollars.  Thus, the total education benefit, including the living allowance, in 1944 would have been worth $11,191 annually, or $1,243 monthly in 2007 dollars.”

Keeping this historic perspective in mind, I along with Ranking Member Boozman have introduced H.R. 5684, the Veterans Education Improvement Act which seeks to address the educational needs of our brave men and women in uniform.  This bipartisan bill is the product of numerous hearings held by our Subcommittee since the beginning of the 110th Congress, which allowed for close evaluation of the Montgomery GI Bill and input from veteran service organizations, education leaders, government agencies, and other policy experts.

H.R. 5684 would help address current MGIB shortfalls, along with other important improvements, including:

  • Substantially increases the amount of basic education assistance for veterans equal to the average cost of the tuition at a four-year public college or university;

  • Provides veterans with a monthly cost of living stipend; and

  • Extends the time limitation for use of education benefits from 10 years to 15 years, more fully accommodating the transition from military to civilian life.  

I would like to add that H.R. 5684 includes unique provisions that:

  • Allows the overall assistance to be used for business courses, prepatory courses for exams, and to repay federal student loans;

  • Dramatically expands the opportunity for service members to enroll for the benefits, even if they are beyond the initial opportunity for automatic enrollment;

  • Provides increased funding for State Approving Agencies, an important partner in administering the benefits with the VA;

  • Rewards veterans for their service by eliminating their educational entitlements from being considered as income when applying for federal financial aid;

  • Increases On the Job Training and dependent education benefit to 85 percent;

  • Supplements reporting fees given to colleges and universities;

  • Creates a five-year pilot program to expand work-study programs for veterans;

  • Increase the VA’s full time employees by 150 to help administer the new requirements;

  • Provides funding for updating existing IT systems; and

  • Rearranges the “advance pay” process to prevent any break in benefits.

H.R. 5684 provides specific improvements and adjustments meant to make it easier, not harder for veterans to access the education benefits they’ve earned following their service and contributes to the overall national economy.  In addition, this bill will make changes with minimal disruption of the current VA IT system and to the beneficiaries. 

The Veterans Education Improvement Act is a well crafted bill that provides the VA the resources to administer the new changes to update and improve the Montgomery GI Bill to better reflect today’s world, and ensure that today’s veterans have the resources they need to continue or begin their education when they return from service.  I appreciate the support of many of today’s witnesses for this bill that addresses necessary changes to veterans’ education benefits.

I look forward to working with Ranking Member Boozman and other Members of the Committee to continue to improve education entitlements for veterans.  Those serving in our Armed Forces deserve to be protected as best we know how – not just with weaponry, armor and other equipment, but also health care, education, and support for the families who await their return.