G.I. Bill expands coverage, still faces budget uncertainty

More changes are coming to the post-Sept. 11 G.I. Bill.

The third round of updates is scheduled to roll out Oct. 1, a Veterans Affairs Department official announced Thursday.

New provisions include eligibility for educational programs that do not lead to a college degree, such as flight training and apprenticeships. Additionally, the bill now will provide a housing allowance for students not on active duty and enrolled only in distance learning. In addition, active-duty students will receive a stipend for books and supplies.

Previous updates of the expanded act, which President Obama signed in January, began in March and August. Keith Wilson, director of VA's education service, called the changes a significant expansion.

Brian Hawthorne, a board member of the Student Veterans of America, said he was very pleased with the expansion and the administration's timeliness in enacting the changes.

More than 130,000 people have applied for VA benefits for fall 2011 enrollment, and VA has processed more than 110,000 of those applications. The department requested $11.1 billion for the bill for fiscal 2012, an increase of more than $2 billion from the previous year's request.

Despite the gradual expansion of the program, some cuts could be on the horizon. Veterans organizations suspect the upcoming budget cuts required by the 2011 Budget Control Act will target the G.I. bill along with other veteran and military benefits. The act combines the discretionary budgets of several agencies -- including VA and the Defense, Homeland Security and State departments -- and forces reduction in the combined budget.

The White House recently sat down with veterans groups to assure them their benefits would be protected in deficit-reduction talks, but Joseph Chenelly and Joseph Violante, both from the Disabled American Veterans, said that the White House did not address whether the G.I. bill would be safe from cuts.

Recently, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., selected Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to co-chair the deficit reduction super committee. Murray also chairs the Senate Veteran Affairs committee.

"Hopefully, she will protect veterans' benefits as a member of the super committee," SVA's Hawthorne said. "We have a good relationship with her and she knows how important the G.I. bill is."

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