Veterans Affairs officials are backtracking on plans to bar student veterans from “rounding out” their degree programs with non-required courses to maintain their GI Bill benefits, saying they’ll look for other ways to ensure the system isn’t being abused.

Department leaders had planned to end the practice this August, a move that could have cost some veterans thousands of dollars in tuition payouts and housing stipends.

But on Thursday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the department will no longer make the change, allowing the practice to continue into the future.

“The department’s goal is to not only support the economic well-being of veterans and their families but also ensure we are serving as fiscal stewards of dollars entrusted to our agency,” he said in a statement. “The new ‘rounding out’ policy allows VA to accomplish both.

“GI Bill students can continue receiving full-time benefits, including a housing allowance, as they complete their educational goals.”

At issue are how Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are awarded to veterans.

Students receive tuition at state colleges and a monthly housing stipend if they are enrolled full-time in a degree program. However, if students opt not to take a full course load, those payouts can shrink dramatically.

Veterans nearing the end of their degree coursework will typically add some non-essential courses to make sure they keep their full-time status and maintain their full benefits payouts. VA officials under the previous administration moved to end that practice, to ensure veterans were not gaming the system to get more money.

Lawmakers and education advocates hailed the decision to abandon that change as a positive step towards helping student veterans get the most out of their GI Bill benefits.

“The ‘rounding out’ rule saves student veterans thousands of dollars in housing costs, and the prior administration’s move to eliminate it jeopardized their ability to afford their living expenses,” said Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif. and chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s panel on economic opportunity.

During testimony earlier this week, Justin Hauschild, legal fellow for Student Veterans of America, called the proposed change potentially harmful for individuals trying to finish their degrees and praised VA leadership for re-evaluating the move.

“Under the new proposal, it appears they’ll be able to continue providing students with ongoing flexibility in their final term, but tightening the policies on requirements to bring them in line with the GI Bill’s intent,” he said.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calf., said his members will continue working with department leaders in the months ahead to find improvements to the GI Bill program without hurting veterans’ degree chances.

“Veterans’ earned educational benefits and the associated housing allowance are some of the most important economic tools student veterans can utilize following military service,” he said in a statement. “If this ‘rounding’ out policy was allowed to expire in August, countless veterans would suddenly be left out to dry as they attempted to finish their degrees.”

Officials could not estimate how many veterans might have been affected by the change, since each individual’s course work and degree programs vary. More than 900,000 students used GI Bill benefits for college in fiscal 2019.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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