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Private schools, veterans see benefits in new GI bills

When Walter Hendricks returned from France in 1946 to start a college on his Vermont farm, 35 of the first 50 students were fellow GIs – young men eager to learn and grateful for a peaceful place to do so.

Sixty-two years later, Marlboro College is known for independent students who direct their own course of study.

But it no longer teems with veterans. Now, there is just one.

Rising senior Jeff Bristol served in Afghanistan, but says it's not through the government-provided education benefits of the Montgomery GI bill that he can afford to attend the private college. Bristol also needed the money he earned as a private contractor in Iraq.

Soon, however, there could be more money available to send veterans to private schools under a new GI bill being finalized in Congress.

Those who qualify would have more freedom to choose distinctive colleges, rather than being limited by finances to the community, for-profit and regional public colleges where most troops have typically used their GI benefits.

“It's not just some other school where you are force-fed knowledge in a class with 500 people,” Bristol wrote of Marlboro, in an e-mail.

The bills are expected to pass both houses of Congress by veto-proof majorities next week.

The government would cover full tuition for veterans at their state's most expensive public college.

For students hoping to attend private institutions, the government would provide the cost of the priciest public university plus a dollar-for-dollar match of aid the colleges provide to help make up the difference.

The added benefits will cost an estimated $52 billion over 10 years. President Bush and some lawmakers have supported an alternative measure, arguing the current bill is so generous it will discourage re-enlistment.

This week, however, the White House signaled Bush might sign the bill, but now wanted to add more education benefits for spouses and children.

A number of colleges are likely to step up with targeted aid for veterans to cover the remaining gap from the GI bill. Pace University in New York is among the schools already actively recruiting veterans, offering a 50-percent tuition break for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans and advertising in veterans' publications and Web sites.