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Veterans' Benefits Continue to Evolve, Impact Ferris Students

Steven NeshkoffWith the battles of World War II still raging, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 on June 22 of that year. Better known as the GI Bill®, the legislation would have a major impact on the United States’ post-war economy and culture. The GI Bill® gave unprecedented access to higher education to millions of people who may not otherwise have ever set foot on a college campus. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, by 1947 veterans accounted for almost half of college admissions. Nearly eight million WWII veterans used their benefits to attend college or enroll in training programs by the time the original bill ended in 1956. Today, as servicemen and women return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an updated GI Bill® is helping them earn college degrees to prepare for new lives in a new economy.

The most recent incarnation of veterans’ benefits legislation is the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, which became law in July of 2008. The new bill provides for direct tuition payments to schools, a monthly living allowance and book stipend for those with at least 90 cumulative days of active duty service post-9/11, with full benefits available for those with 36 cumulative months of service.

“My fear is that there are some people who will finish active duty and not take advantage of their benefits,” said Troy Tissue, Ferris’ former associate director of admissions. “The ‘Greatest Generation’ surged into college after World War II, and in turn became teachers and scientists and served the country as civilians. It’s now time for this new generation of GI Bill® recipients to put that benefit to its greatest use.”

The bill has new and more flexible benefits, which includes giving currently serving troops the ability to transfer education benefits to a child or spouse, if that soldier has served at least six years and agrees to four more years of service. Those who take advantage of the benefits don’t always use them in exactly the same way.

“You only have the benefits for a certain number of months, so some veterans don’t want to use them for their undergraduate studies but instead will bank them for their graduate work,” explained Tissue.

About 400 Ferris students currently make use of GI Bill® benefits. Each veteran brings to his or her education unique experiences — as does Steven Neshkoff.

Although Neshkoff served in the Air Force for six years and is a student employee in Ferris’ Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid – Veterans Administration, he doesn’t look ex-military. “I had a kid today who said to me, ‘You ain’t a vet.’ You look at pictures of me from then to now, and it’s like night and day. It’s pretty funny,” he said.

Neshkoff served in the United States Air Force from 2002-08, first at Malmstrom Air Force Base for two years where he was a “nuclear cop” escorting missiles. He then transferred to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., where he performed high-level dignitary security. “All the blue-and-whites you see at the bottom of the stairs, popping a salute? That was me,” he said. Neshkoff met presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, with whom he had a chance to talk in person. He also guarded then-First Lady Hilary Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney (whom he accompanied to Afghanistan), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others.

One of his most memorable flights was with Jeb Bush, whom he escorted to Haiti for that country’s presidential inauguration. Neshkoff’s uncle worked under the former Florida governor. “On the way back I asked Gov. Bush if he knew my uncle, and we talked during the whole two-hour flight back home,” he recalled.

The Ferris junior and Education major also did a nine-month stint in Iraq working at a prison camp. Because of the scheduling demands of his diplomatic security detail, Neshkoff realized that he would need to be out of active service to pursue a college degree.

“They say you have time to go to school, but when I was on call at Andrews, it could be two in the morning and sleeping when I’d get a call that I was flying to Jordan in a few hours. That wasn’t conducive to studying,” he said, so he started applying to, and getting rejected from, colleges in Michigan. “I signed up for the military in March of 2002. I took the ACTs that month and didn’t really care. Ferris gave me the chance, and I’ve held a 3.4 GPA for three years.”

Neshkoff thinks the new GI Bill ® has been good for veterans — especially the new provision that pays for tuition directly, which keeps vets from having to take out loans at the beginning of a semester. His one complaint is that he would like to see the benefits extend to 48 months to fully cover a four-year degree.

“Everything is working out pretty comfortably for me now, until my senior year when I’ll probably run out of benefits because it’s only for 36 months,” he said. “That’s something I want to get fixed, because school is traditionally 48 months — or even past that in today’s age. Thirty-six doesn’t cover it.”

With uncertainty in the job market, Neshkoff isn’t sure what he may do after he graduates from Ferris. “I’m conflicted. I miss the government life. I might go to the State Department and work for them. I’d really like to go and live overseas. That, or I might go back into the military and become an officer.

Whatever he decides, Neshkoff will benefit by having a college degree and little if any student debt when he begins the next phase of his life.

As new as the Post-9/11 GI Bill® is, there are more changes this year. In January President Obama signed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistant Improvements Act of 2010. Provisions of this act include expanded eligibility for National Guard members; book stipends for active-duty troops and their spouses; new living allowance eligibility for disabled veterans; and living stipends for online students. The various changes are being phased in from March through October.