Jackson Haddon faced a decision after he graduated from Capital High in Helena, Mont., in 2015 - he wanted to get a college education without any debt.
His dad, a veteran, suggested two options: working or joining the military. Haddon joined the Air Force on his father's recommendation and became a photojournalist. He initially refused to return to his hometown for school, but his mom persuaded him to attend Carroll College.
Using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program of the small private college, Haddon could cover the higher costs of private schools not covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Haddon said that his entire tuition had been covered by the GI Bill with the Yellow Ribbon Program during the fall and spring semesters.
Now, the status of future students who wish to follow Haddon's approach is in question. Recently updated rules for a long-standing program meant to stop for-profit colleges from taking advantage of veterans may instead prevent future students from using things like the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for their education.
Since the 1950s, the 85/15 Rule has been in place. VA rules prohibit the VA from paying for students’ education in programs where the VA or the college covers more than 85% of the tuition.
Under the new definition of "supported student," it means any student receiving VA education benefits, as well as any student receiving a scholarship or grant from their school, or any student using a payment plan. According to Brandy Keely, the college’s director of veteran services.
Carroll's new definition of a "supported student" would encompass nearly all of its students.
"We are essentially grouping all of our students into one category. As a result, we will exceed what they call an 85/15 threshold," Keely said.
Keely said Carroll would no longer be able to enroll students using VA benefits if the change stands. Keely said Carroll is unlikely to reduce the number of students they consider "supported." Approximately 50 students a semester use VA education benefits at Carroll, Keely said, and 20 of those students use the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
In combination with the Yellow Ribbon Program, veterans receive full tuition and fees, a monthly housing stipend, and a book allowance of up to $1,000 per academic year.
Billings' Rocky Mountain College is in the same boat as Carroll, said Austin Mapston, the vice president for enrollment services. Rocky's 840 students receive some sort of tuition assistance.
Mapston said Rocky typically has between 40 and 45 veterans using education benefits.
It's a big challenge to see this kind of change in interpreting and enforcing these benefits, he said.
Mapston said colleges met with staffers for VA Committee Chair Jon Tester.
Rocky has already received about 80% of its applications for next fall. Carroll is full recruiting for next school year, and Keely said the college lets veterans know about the change.
Even so, Cech and Keely were optimistic that a solution would be found.
In Haddon's junior year, he plans to finish school and figure out what's next. Initially, he might work in construction before becoming a counselor. If he doesn't enjoy that, he will try to use his philosophy degree in another way.