Minnesota National Guard members face change to education benefits

The change has some worried about finances as the school year starts.

by Christopher Lemke

Some Minnesota National Guard members will lose access to higher education benefits after a recent policy change.

The July 1 change requires Guard members to use all available Federal Tuition Assistance dollars before other benefits, causing some to lose initial access to federal GI Bill money since federal policy prohibits using both at once.

Before the change, students would first go through the State Tuition Reimbursement program, which allowed simultaneous use with the GI Bill.

The GI Bill, which grants up to $369 a month for full-time students, functioned as a supplement to STR funding and could be used on education costs like housing, tuition and books.

“I wouldn’t have been able to make it as a student [without GI money,]” said Mike Purtell, a specialist in the National Guard and a University of Minnesota-Duluth teaching social studies senior.

Students would rarely go through the FTA program first because the combination of STR and GI Bill was enough, Purtell said, adding the FTA process is cumbersome.

“We signed up to serve our state and community and the programs that were promised are slowly eroding,” Purtell said in an email.

Matthew Fulton, a National Guard specialist and University of Minnesota-Duluth chemical engineering senior, said he dropped his initial housing plan for the school year after realizing he wouldn’t get any GI Bill money.

“I had to redo my entire budget for the year, and I could not justify paying for the nicer place,” said Fulton, a friend of Purtell.

Kendra Cleveland, president of the Chapter 28 Minnesota National Guard Enlisted Association, said her friend in the Minnesota National Guard faced the prospect of dropping out of college after anticipating the lost GI benefit. She said her friend quit the school’s track and field team to find a better-paying job.

Originally, the state program was intended to supplement existing federal benefits, said Captain Mindy Davis, a Minnesota National Guard Education Services Officer.

In 2014, the federal Department of Defense decided the two federal benefits duplicated each other and prohibited their simultaneous use.

As a result, the Minnesota National Guard chose to let service members pick between the two programs, giving them flexibility to maximize the money they receive.

This led to a dramatic decrease in Minnesota National Guard members using FTA money, she said, and put pressure on the state funding.

“The state of Minnesota gives us a generous annual appropriation, but it is not a blank check,” Davis said, adding the only way to continue offering the same level of state benefits is to make students use the FTA.

Davis said members have been disappointed and frustrated yet understanding of the National Guard’s situation, adding there are other education benefits for members.

A policy change currently in the works might lift wait periods on using benefits, said Don Kerr, the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs’ executive director.

The State Legislature was also supportive of the National Guard this session, Kerr said in an email, allocating $8.4 million of the $11.5 million request from the department.