Hey, soldier, wanna go to Harvard? Elite universities throughout the country—including that one in Cambridge, Mass.—will decide in the coming weeks whether to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan study for free, using their own funds to supplement the new GI Bill, which goes into effect in August. But for many universities, faced with shrinking endowments and a rising pool of financial-aid applicants, this is no easy decision. Kevin Galvin, Harvard's director of news and media relations, says the school hasn't yet reached a verdict—but he noted that much of its aid dollars have already been committed elsewhere.
According to the GI Bill passed into law last year, veterans can study at the most expensive public university in their state, with the government covering full tuition and many fees, or they can apply the money to tuition at a private or out-of-state university. But veterans who choose an Ivy League school, for instance, will be left with a hefty bill. To close the gap, the government has offered to split the difference with these universities under a "Yellow Ribbon" program. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which administers the GI Bill, has asked universities to respond by May 15.
So far, only two universities have signed on, according to Keith Wilson, the VA's education-service director. He would not say which two, but Columbia University and Amherst College told NEWSWEEK they were adopting the program. "The way veterans will get access to academia through this program—that was a wow factor for us," says Curtis Rodgers, the dean of enrollment management at Columbia's School of General Studies, adding that 15 of the university's 17 schools plan to participate. Tom Parker, who oversees admission and financial aid at Amherst, says the college's endowment has shrunk 25 percent during the recession and its administrative budget has been cut 15 percent. Still, no one argued against the program. "There was zero controversy about it," Parker says. "It was unanimous." Elsewhere, it might not be so easy.