Students having challenges with GI Bill housing stipends after changes to program

PARKVILLE, Mo. -- Thousands of students around the world rely on the GI Bill to pay for a college education. Many of them are also eligible to get money that help covers everyday expenses while they go to school.

But changes in how the housing stipends work are now causing some headaches.

John Higgs is working toward an MBA at Park University.

"I came out of military life and went direct to civilian life. In civilian life, you need education," Higgs said.

After 12 years in the Army, deployments and time as a reservist, the GI Bill is helping make it possible. Not only does he get money to cover tuition and books, but also an extra housing stipend that helps pay rent, utilities, insurance and more.

"Having that additional money coming in, it helps me get through life," Higgs said.

But many students like John are having trouble getting the right amount of money in their housing stipends or getting the money at all.

That's because this year, Congress made changes to the program.

"Typically the housing payment is based on the zip code of the school, the face-to-face location that you`re attending. With the Colmery Act, what will happen with that is the zip codes will now be where you`re taking most of those face-to-face classes," said Sarah Weygand, Park University's assistant director of military and veteran student services.

It's a big issue for many colleges like Park, which has dozens of campus centers spread out around the country.

"Parkville has different housing rate than, say, Independence, and we have students that go to both locations. If they're going to take most of their face-to-face classes in Independence, we want them to be able to have that housing allowance, which is higher, from Independence, not just from the Parkville area," Weygand said.

The Veterans Administration was supposed to be ready to roll out the new housing rates by Aug. 1, but that hasn't happened. Until it's fixed, some veterans could be left high and dry without the money they need to get by.

"What's going to happen is they can fall behind on bills really quick, and the way I look at it is, no veteran should be left behind," Higgs said.

Park University said it can help students file a hardship claim if necessary and even have some emergency scholarships available. But the college remains optimistic the issues will get ironed out soon.

"We try to work with those as best we can and help the student, so they can be successful in their classes and not have to worry about money at the end of the day," Weygand said.

The VA said it's still running tests on changes to its computer systems designed to calculate the new correct stipend amounts. Any students who have been short-changed will get the correct amount of cash back once those upgrades are complete.