The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is making sure new language in the GI Bill will not work against veterans seeking to use both state and federal benefits to attend Connecticut’s public universities.

A recent letter from the VA confirms that under the new provisions of the GI Bill, which will take effect Aug. 1, veterans attending the state’s public colleges can elect to receive a Connecticut State Tuition Waiver.

After reviewing new provisions added to the bill, state Department of Higher Education Deputy Commissioner Jane Ciarleglio asked the VA in this letter if the language forced veterans to use their state benefits before those from the federal government. It appeared, under the new federal language, the state’s tuition waiver would have to be exhausted before veterans would be eligible for federal benefits.

But Ciarlegio says that should not be the case.

“Because the programs are inextricably linked, state aid cannot be applied first to reduce the federal contribution,” Ciarlegio wrote.

Connie Fraser, communications director for the Department of Higher Education, explained that using the state tuition waiver before the GI Bill could negatively impact veterans when their total amount of federal aid is calculated.

Central Connecticut State University Veterans Affairs Coordinator Chris Gutierrez said the scenario “would have been a huge issue for the universities” as the state would have had to pay veterans’ benefits before federal aid were to be deducted.

“It’s making the state eat that money,” he said.

The response  Ciarleglio received Tuesday clarified that GI Bill benefits would not be contingent on using up state aid first. For example, according to the letter, a veteran who didn’t receive full coverage under the GI Bill could fund the remainder though state benefits.

“It’s the exact opposite; the state tuition can be applied afterward,” Fraser assured. “This is a very, very beneficial clarification for our veterans. We’re trying to maximize both the amounts available for veterans at the state and federal level.”

Gutierrez said he and his department were relieved to hear the news. “Everything’s back to normal,” he said.

Congressman Joe Courtney applauded the VA’s ruling.

“The decision by the VA confirms that Connecticut veterans will continue to receive their full federal GI Bill benefits without additional burden on the state,” he said. “This is welcome news for the men and women who served bravely in our armed forces, and a relief to the State of Connecticut.”

The New GI Bill

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvement Act of 2010 took effect two years ago on Aug. 1. It provides education benefits to service personnel who have served on active duty for 90 days or longer since Sept. 10, 2001.

Despite recent confusion over the revised language, in many respects, the new GI Bill is much better,” according to Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Dr. Linda Schwartz.

“Veterans in our state are still free to decide if they’re going to use the [new GI Bill], tuition waiver, or, for some of them, a combination of both benefits so they can get the best deal,” she said.

She explained, “in the state of Connecticut, we are generous,” so making sure veterans could utilize both state and federal benefits is essential. According to Fraser, Connecticut and five other states – Illinois, Montana, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming – offer some sort of tuition waiver to veterans who qualify.

Funding available for veterans under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is contingent on how long the service member spent in the military, Schwartz said.

Other sticking points for the new bill include allowing veterans to attend schools that aren’t “degree-granting institutions,” such as vocational or technical schools, and offering a housing allowance and book stipend up to $1,000. Also, Schwartz pointed out that under the new bill, if a veteran decides not to pursue higher education, he or she can reserve the funding for dependents such as children or spouses.

“This really has been a help to a lot of our families,” Schwartz stressed. “Children can prosper for the service of their parent.”

Gutierrez said many of the student veterans he has helped have taken advantage of this program.

“It’s very flexible, which is a good thing,” Gutierrez said, adding that at CCSU, of the 600 student veterans registered as students, 400 are receiving state or federal benefits.