When Dr. Eric Fretz first started his military career, higher education wasn’t a priority. He joined the Navy and spent years in the service with plans to remain on active duty as long as possible.
After a deployment to the Gulf War and his first sea tour, he was assigned to shore duty to run schoolhouses for the Navy in Chicago. When enlisted soldiers started talking about the weekend college classes they were taking, he was fascinated.
“I just said, ‘Wait a minute, where are you learning all these theories?’ We went to the same classes, and they didn’t teach me any of this stuff,” Fretz recalled.
He decided to enroll and enjoyed his classes so much that he transitioned to the Army Reserve before officially retiring to work at the University of Michigan. He now has two bachelors degrees, two masters degrees, a dual doctorate and is a lecturer for the university’s Department of Psychology. He also is a mentor for the school’s Veteran and Military Services Program.
“At first, it was a simple decision just to be a better officer and a better leader,” he said. “But it turned out to change everything. I didn’t even see this coming. Just being willing to try new things and sort of float with the current in life led me here.”
Military education benefits didn’t pay for all of his schoolings, but he did take advantage of the GI Bill and other veteran assistance programs to fund a large part of it. But, according to Fretz, there has always been a widespread problem of military students misinterpreting benefits they’re eligible for, resulting in missed funding opportunities and unintentional expired benefits.
According to a Department of Education study published in March 2020, there is a lot of money on the line. Military students using their benefits receive, on average, $15,100 a year for undergraduate education and $16,200 a year for graduate education.
Student fees impact tuition
Zachary Minchew, an airman first class and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) student, is currently serving as an aircraft mechanic for the Illinois Air National Guard and is preparing for his first deployment later this year. He’s enrolled in the SIU School of Aviation and admits he was surprised when he learned his benefits wouldn’t completely cover the cost of his student fees.
“When I joined, in the beginning, it sounds amazing, but there’s a little bit of misconception,” Minchew said. “In the advertisements, you see, ‘100% tuition assistance with the military,’ and once you join, they make it sound like it covers everything, but as you come to find, there are all these student fees that accompany that.”
Eventually, he found an Illinois National Guard grant program to help cover the extra cost, in addition to the Montgomery GI Bill. He’s happy with the tuition assistance he receives and believes more people would take advantage of it if there was more guidance from supervisors in the National Guard about applying for additional tuition assistance programs.
“It’s really nice to be able to go to school and be successful and follow your dream, do everything you want to do,” he said. “With my job being critical, I actually get a bonus and a kicker with the monthly GI Bill. But applying for a Guard grant, I didn’t know where to go, and I just googled and found it online.”
Students can overestimate benefits
Paul Copeland, Veterans Services program coordinator at SIUC, said it’s common for new students to overestimate the amount of federal benefits they’ll receive for their service.
“The baseline National Guard benefit from the federal level is not very generous,” he said, adding that he advises students to look into state tuition programs they might qualify for, as they tend to help cover necessary expenses.
Federal assistance offers $250 per semester hour up to 16 hours per fiscal year.
Affording college can be especially difficult for reserve students, who, according to Copeland, often don’t qualify for the state tuition assistance programs.
“We seem to be treating these students differently,” he said. “Maybe the states could take action and say, ‘Hey, we appreciate the National Guard, but we also appreciate the reservists who happen to be living and serving in our state.’”
Federal lawmakers are considering boosting education benefits for National Guard and Reserve members. Under the present legislation, guardsmen and reservists don’t accrue the same benefits as their active-duty counterparts.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill stipulates that qualifying veterans can receive up to three years’ worth of benefits covering tuition and fees, housing and the cost of books and supplies. However, the amount of benefits depends on how long service members are on active duty, with the maximum amount available to people who served for at least three full years.
Pending education benefits legislation
Legislation approved by the House of Representatives (H.R. 1836) would change that, allowing all federal missions — including training days in uniform — to count toward GI benefits.
Opponents to the bill argue that allowing training to count toward benefits would drive up costs for the federal government. The legislation will affect about 40,000 National Guard and Reserve members and is predicted to cost the government about $2 billion annually.
Fretz said he believes the expanded benefits are well deserved.
“These individuals have served the nation, they’ve learned all these skills, they’ve built up a lot of really good habits and a good vision of where they’re going to go,” Fretz said. “A bachelor’s degree is that tool that allows them to really launch themselves into a career or a successful life.”
The legislation that could increase National Guard and Reserve Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits would still need Senate approval to become law. As of Jan. 13, the bill had been read twice in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.Read comments