IOWA CITY — Iowa National Guard member Chris Harbeck has been working over the winter break at a Sioux City sheet metal shop to earn spending money for his spring semester at the University of Iowa.
Now, he will likely have to use that cash to offset a reduction in the maximum award provided by the National Guard Education Assistance Program. That loss could be up to $1,300 per semester.
The Iowa National Guard announced this week it will reduce the maximum award from 90 percent of tuition to 50 percent. The cuts will be in effect for the spring semester, which means Guard members enrolled in college classes starting in just a few weeks will have to scramble to make sure they can pay the bills.
“I was disheartened a little bit,” Harbeck, 20, of Sioux City, said about the award reduction. “I set aside a little bit of money, so I should be all right.”
The number of veterans enrolling in Iowa’s public universities could double in the next two years as more than 3,000 National Guard soldiers return from overseas deployments and become eligible for federal GI Bill benefits.
A record number of applicants for education assistance combined with flat state funding and rising tuition caused the Guard to reduce the award amounts to ensure all qualified applicants get some financial support, Col. Gregory Hapgood said.
“We will reduce that award to 50 percent as a precaution so we can provide that benefit to as many soldiers and airmen as possible,” he said.
For the students heading back to campus in January, “It’s going to be a big surprise and an
unpleasant one,” Hapgood said.
The program enacted in fiscal 1998 requires
the Guard to pay at least half of the tuition rate at the state’s public universities or half of the tuition rate at the institution attended by the Guard member, whichever is lower. The maximum award will go from nearly $2,900 per semester to $1,600.
Tuition assistance has been a major draw for military recruits, said Amanda Irish, a UI student and president of the UI Veterans Association.
“The reasons people go into the military are vast and varied, but education is one of the top reasons,” said the 2002 Cedar Rapids Jefferson graduate. “I know our vet population is not typically very well off. Some have wives and kids. At minimum this (the award reduction) is an inconvenience. At the worst, it could be a deal breaker.”
About 120 to 150 UI students will be affected immediately by the tuition award reduction, said Dennis Arps, who coordinates GI Bill service for the UI.
Harbeck, who enlisted in the Guard right out of high school, is a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic whose unit is based in Boone. He’s an open major at the UI but is thinking about going into education or human physiology.
He got a memo this week from Maj. Gen. Timothy Orr, the adjutant general for Iowa, that explained the tuition award reduction. Most of Harbeck’s fellow Guard members and students think they can cover the loss of state support, he said.
“It helps out a ton,” he said of the program.
Arps is advising veterans attending the UI to tap into existing federal programs to supplement the loss at the state level. UI Veterans Affairs also plans to lobby the Iowa Legislature to increase funding for the state program.
Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said boosting support for the education assistance program will be a high priority in the 2012 legislative session.
“We can’t do enough to support our veterans,” Beall said.