Scott Lowe enlisted in the infantry -- the "dirtiest job there is" in the Army, he says -- completing two Iraqi tours in which he dug up weapons caches, found improvised explosive devices and rounded up insurgents.
"No better way to serve your country," said Lowe, 27. "Most of us lost friends over there, had close calls. . . . Now it's time to catch up."
Lowe will graduate from USC with an accounting degree later this year, and was hoping to seek an MBA at the university financed by the new Post- 9/11 GI Bill, which promises free or reduced college tuition for veterans who have served since the terrorist attacks.
But in what some officials call an anomaly and critics describe as a classic bureaucratic snafu, the Department of Veterans Affairs has designated the bill's tuition benefit in California as $0.
The amount veterans are eligible for under the bill, which takes effect Aug. 1, is tied to the highest undergraduate tuition charged by the public institutions in each state. But because California's public colleges have long described as "fees" what other states call tuition, veterans at private colleges in the state will be ineligible for thousands of dollars in benefits that those elsewhere will receive.
So Lowe, a Huntington Beach native, is looking at business schools elsewhere. "Veterans already have given up a lot. I don't see why they shouldn't have the same opportunity in California as everybody else," he said.
An estimated 10% of the 400,000 U.S. veterans who were eligible to receive benefits under the old GI Bill are in California, but veterans and education officials say they are not sure how many may be affected by the semantic glitch in the new one.
VA officials said the agency did its best within statutory strictures to iron out regional disparities and come up with a national formula that was fair to all. Veterans can still receive a top-notch, free education at any community college or public university in California, the officials said.
"It's a national program. We're absolutely convinced the formula covers all public institutions," said Keith M. Wilson, director of education services for the department's Veterans Benefits Administration. "The variables are private colleges and graduate schools."
Passed in 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was designed to be flexible, allowing veterans to attend any college, private or public, undergraduate or graduate, and emerge debt-free. In addition to tuition aid, the bill includes book stipends and housing payments, tied to the actual costs in the school's ZIP Code.
Under the bill's provisions, veterans who attend California public colleges and universities, or such rare fee-based private schools as the Monterey Institute of International Studies, have their school bills paid in full. And tuition-based private colleges can still give veterans a free ride under a separate provision of the bill called the Yellow Ribbon Program, in which the private schools split some or all tuition costs with the VA.
But college officials and veterans' advocates say many private universities are balking at joining the Yellow Ribbon Program because of the $0 baseline tuition benefit in California.
"California is one of the lowest-participating states in the program so far," Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) said last month.
"The fees versus tuition issue makes it almost impossible for many of our members," said Jonathan Brown of the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities.
Christian Allaire, a 20-year Coast Guard veteran, had planned to enter Dominican University of California, a small Catholic school in Marin County, to study philosophy. He hopes to eventually become a high school teacher.
After some hesitation because of the $0 tuition benefit, Dominican has signed up for the Yellow Ribbon Program, but will not be able to serve as many veterans as it had hoped, financial aid director Mary Frances Causey said. But Allaire, who is living on his boat in Grenada, has decided to sit out the program for a year.
"This was a calculated decision based upon the government's inability to field any new program efficiently," Allaire, 41, said by e-mail. "After 20 years working for the government, I've seen it over and over again." Allaire said he believed Congress, by putting the Post-9/11 GI Bill on a fast track, had robbed the VA of enough "time to work out the kinks."
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), joined by the California congressional delegation, is sponsoring a bill to change California's $0 designation, but congressional leaders have said they believe the fix will come too late to help students enrolling for the fall. And the bill, which has not moved forward, will be too late to help private colleges and universities, which must decide by Monday whether to sign up for the program.