VA and GI Bill Schools Work to Improve Communication


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Navy Commander Herb Carmen has a lot on his mind. As an active duty aviator on the Navy staff in Washington, he works under the Director of International Engagement as the branch chief for security cooperation. He’s also training for a future assignment as a Navy individual augmentee in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

If juggling a wife and kids and a high pressure job wasn’t enough, Herb spends any remaining free time in class as a student in the Executive MBA program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. But while he’s currently attending the program at no cost, recent legislative changes to GI Bill tuition payments for private schools could delay his education and send him into significant debt. Herb suggests a slow process to communicate the implications of the changes has caused additional anxiety at home as he and his wife face a potential for tens of thousands of dollars in unexpected tuition.

“Because I’m at the end of the information chain, I don’t know what details have been resolved to this point,” he said. “It’s very difficult to know what information hasn’t been passed because of slow dissemination or what hasn’t been passed because VA hasn’t finalized details.”

Herb’s frustrations underscore the complex relationship between VA and universities that allow GI Bill tuition funding. While many universities manage effective relationships with VA, some certifying officials expressed frustration with the communications process. These school employees act as de-facto guidance counselors for Vets and are knowledgeable about everything from certification of enrollment to available benefits. As intermediaries between VA and Veterans, these officials handle the administrative details so Vets can keep their mind on schoolwork—and not worry about whether their tuition will be paid on time.

Challenges in dealing with VA

Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was enacted, most private schools offset expensive tuition costs for students with the Yellow Ribbon Program, though some schools choose to limit the matching amount instead of opting for an “all-in” agreement to match the difference with VA. But starting this fall, legislation has capped tuition at private universities at $17,500 per year.  Certifying officials have rushed to explain the complex new rules to concerned students. Some are concerned VA has not acted quickly enough to supply final rules and procedures for the fall semester.

“We don’t have very much information, so I doubt the students do,” said one certifying official at an east coast private school, with an uneasy laugh. “When a student walks into my office right off of active duty, they have no idea what the GI Bill is going to cover or what they’re eligible for.” She said her university is exploring ways to ensure every Veteran receives all the information they need. But without proper communication, that could prove difficult.

“We’re always striving to help students understand their total cost of attendance, so they can think about the right way to pay for their entire degree,” a colleague said. “But everything we do in the Veterans world flies in the face of that. I can’t tell you what you’ll be paying ten minutes from now.”

Help by other means

The certifying officials I spoke to all agreed that the flow of information they receive and their relationship with VA is only as good as the Education Liaison Representative (ELR) assigned to their region. (ELRs are VA employees that act as conduits between school officials and VA.)

Some schools enjoy beneficial relationships with their liaisons. Others I spoke to, however, can’t reach their representatives or may even not be aware they exist. In one instance, I spoke to a school official who told me she had no means to contact her ELR’s supervisor and instead relies on top-level assistance from an outside organization like Student Veterans of America (SVA) when her ELR is unresponsive. This route is not uncommon. When a school cannot staff dedicated certifying officials, groups like SVA often fill an administrative function between students and resources on campus, like financial aid and the registrar’s office.

In another example, a school official told me of a Veteran with a Social Security Number that matched another in the system. After an employee on the GI Bill hotline couldn’t resolve the issue, she contacted her ELR, who did not respond. She ultimately solved the problem with the help of a VA employee at the Department’s central office—an unofficial contact she had made through a student. Listening to these stories, I couldn’t help but be struck with the idea that this reliance on back channels didn’t seem right.

“We don’t even know how this is going to work”

Herb’s situation at Georgetown is not unique. 30,000 student Veterans at private schools across the country are at various levels of preparation for the tuition changes. Since they could be hit with unplanned debt, they are especially sensitive to any shortfalls in communication between VA university officials. So too are the schools themselves, who rely on updated information from VA to adjust matching levels under Yellow Ribbon.

Erik Brine, the president of the SVA chapter at Georgetown University, highlighted the difficulties caused by delayed communication. “It has taken some of the wind out of our sails in pushing for changes because we don’t even know how this is going to work,” he said.

For the 2011-2012 term, Georgetown will be unable to increase their matching amount for student Veterans because order of payment guidelines weren’t established before a decision date.

VA: Good communication with schools 

Of course, there are schools that enjoy an effective relationship with VA’s education staff. Dr. Michael Gillan, co-chair of the Fordham Vets Task Group at Fordham University, said a member of VA’s regional office outreach staff keeps in regular contact with certifying officials at his university.

“She’s on the ball all the time. I’ll frequently receive press releases and news that go to other schools in the area as well,” he said.

An office called Education Service administers the GI Bill for the Veterans Benefits Administration. Outreach staff explained the relationship between Education Service and the folks who process enrollment certifications at universities.

“We’ve always had good channels of communication with schools here,” said James Ruhlman, a VA Education Service employee that designs training materials. He described an upcoming manual, aimed at certifying officials, and designed to help clarify the new legislative changes. It’s scheduled for release this spring, just in time for schools to begin fall enrollment the following month.

“Everybody is committed to do the best they can on behalf of the claimants, Ruhlman said. “Some questions we can’t answer because the regulations haven’t been finalized, but if they have an answer to most questions, by and large they’re happy with it. But priority number one for them is certifying for the fall.”

When the Post-9/11 GI Bill was introduced, it transformed the ways benefits were distributed. Schools are now paid tuition and fees, on behalf of the students, and students receive housing stipends instead of one size fits all payments. This made issues with debt collection and overpayments multiply. Feedback from schools helped VA determine new policies for overpayments.

“We got a lot of feedback saying, hey, we want to refund VA, not the student,” Ruhlman said. And if debts are generated, the handbook will explain how the debt collection process works. The handbook will be posted on the GI Bill website for school officials to download, and an RSS feed provides alerts for updates and announcements.

Education Service at VA is working on an outreach campaign to inform Veterans on the changes to the GI Bill, with a focus on new benefits for on-the-job training, apprenticeships and flight school, said Barrett Bogue, the outreach coordinator for Education Service. Online and traditional print advertisements will alert Veterans to available benefits for in- and out-of-classroom instruction.

The way forward

Students depend on the providers of education benefits to clearly explain any changes that might affect them. But that information won’t do students any good if the system that supports dissemination is built on a shaky foundation. VA has clearly listened to concerns and has been working to implement a communication effort to ensure students receive timely and accurate information. We must simply ensure the channels are kept open and flow both ways.

Between a family, a busy military career and graduate school, Herb Carmen has plenty to worry about. But without a clear financial picture and proper guidance from VA heading into the fall semester, the anxiety he faces has the ability to impact all aspects of his life, not to mention endanger what he has already worked hard to build. While his education is important, the financial needs of his family remain the first priority.

“I’ve been able to be a part of the Executive MBA program while continuing to work full time on active duty, and I’ve already been able to use what I’ve learned in the classroom at work,” he said. “I’m benefiting and the Navy is benefiting, too.  It would be a shame to waste all of that.”

Author

Alex Horton

Comments

  1. Eric    

    System is still broken. Too many lazy, good for nothing VA representatives.

    I turned my papework in to my school 5 weeks ago (the earliest possible moment). Today is the first day of school and I’ve received no confirmation from the VA and no book stipend. My first day of school is ruined. I’m not taking easy courses that I can just hack my way through without books. I as the veteran have done everything right. I turned in my paperwork at the earliest time allowed. Now I am stuck waiting for my VA representative to get off his lazy butt and actually sent the paperwork to the VA. The VA rep at College of Southern Nevada (Charleston campus) needs to be fired. He is a lazy piece of crap and doesn’t care if veterans receive their benefits or not.

  2. Rachel    

    “The system usually takes care of itself – you just have to act early and apply your information to Vonapps and your financial aid adviser during non-peak times of the year.”

    Unfortunately the system does not take care of itself and no one else takes care of the system, therefore leaving unspoiled patient individuals like me, left out to dry. I began taking classes online last September (2010) at an online university using my Post 9/11 benefits. I was aware I could not receive BAH but no one ever advised me on ways that would qualify me to receive BAH. I did take it upon myself to research the internet and could never find anything. Until one day when I was thinking about changing schools and another school informed me that all I had to do was take one class at a local campus. None of this was on the va.gov website.

    So beginning last January I enrolled for my online classes and enrolled in a class at a local campus. My school official told me once both schools certifies, I should receive my BAH check. From what I read online I was estimating 30-45 days. By April I still had not heard anything so my school advised me to call the VA hotline.

    First call- Rep told me that both schools had not sent in certification and that I needed to call the school. Called the school, they had certified.

    Second call- Rep told me to get the certification number from the school. Call the school then call the Rep back.

    Third call- Rep tells me she sees both schools have certified and I should receive a check after 15 business days.

    I wait 20 business days…..

    Fourth call- Rep tells me, One school certified with their St Louis regional office and the other filed with Atlanta. That these two offices don’t exchange information therefore they are unaware that BAH needs to be processed. She said she will add a note and “hopefully” it will get processed. When I asked who I could contact or what I could do she said I could keep calling the national number or submit a question online. She then told me this will continue to be a problem every semester.

    After feeling completely helpless I contacted my primary school which supposedly contacted the regional offices about getting my certifications processed at the same regional office. I still have not gotten anything from the VA regarding this matter and because there isn’t a system set up for inquiring about my benefits I am just left to hope it eventually work itself out. I am appalled there isn’t a better process.

  3. Brian Hawthorne    

    Great article and thanks for the shout out to SVA as well. Unfortunately, with unresponsive ELRs and sometimes overworked certifying officials, SVA has had to step in and take on one or both roles.

    Among other things, we have felt that there needs to be is a ‘red phone’ or something that certifying officials can use to bring incorrectly processed or delayed claims directly to the attention of a claims adjudicator, not just a customer service rep. Sometimes the veteran calls the GI bill help line, and doesn’t know how to explain the problem, but when a certifying official calls, they won’t talk to them because they are not the actual veteran. The ELRs are spread so thin, and so the certifying official is stuck relying on us, and that is the wrong answer.

    There also needs to be much more required training for certifying officials to be kept up to speed on what is going on out there. It shouldn’t just be sending around documents and expecting people to read them, or hoping that their school can afford to pay to have them go to conferences where VA officials offer insight. There should be mandatory online training that every certifying official has to do every year so that the VA can honestly say that the certifying officials are trained before they allow them to file for benefits.

    Finally, there should be very concrete guidance, if not requirements, from the VA as to how many certifying officials are needed per how many student veterans on campus. One certifying official for 200 student veterans may be acceptable, but not for 2000, and that has happened with no response from the VA. A school should be held accountable for how it treats it’s student veterans before they can receive GI Bill Benefits.

    Thanks for all you do.

    v/r

    Brian Hawthorne
    Student Veterans of America

  4. Janice    

    I just retired from the military after 20+ years. I am currently enrolled in a wonderful Unitversity and am so happy to say that I’m using my GI Bill. I am absolutely appalled that grown adults are unable to call their local VA Service Rep or go online to the VA website. The INDIVIDUAL should take responsibility and LEARN about their VA Benefits. As I was leaving the military, I was inundated with information about the VA. I used this valuable info and went online and also contacted my local Services Rep.
    I now have more information on my GI Bill than the University officials. They were aware that they needed my eligibility letter from the VA, but they were not up to speed on MY Benefits, it’s not their responsibility, it is MINE. I think the VA is doing a great job in getting information out there. People just need to grow up and learn to read, or make a phone call.

    1. Maurice    

      Janice, the problem has been getting specific questions related to the recent law changes answered. There are details such as yellow ribbon eligibility changes, order of payment changes, etc that have gone unanswered by the VA for months because the law changes didn’t give them clear guidance.

    2. Herb Carmen    

      Janice, I’m very happy with the GI Bill as well as the VA and school certifying officials. I can’t say enough good things about Georgetown’s efforts to quickly respond to the recent changes in the law and make things better for veterans.

      You’re absolutely right that it’s the responsibility of veterans to learn about their benefits. Since January when the changes became law, I have spoken with the VA directly and posted questions on the website. The recency of the changes in the law have made it difficult for counselors to provide answers for details that aren’t/weren’t finalized. These are very specific questions related to changes in the Post 9/11 GI Bill won’t affect each student or each school in quite the same way. How a school adapts to the changes can affect the students at that school. I agree that veterans need to understand their benefits; and when the rules change, understanding the impact of the changes is critical.

      1. Robert    

        The system usually takes care of itself – you just have to act early and apply your information to Vonapps and your financial aid adviser during non-peak times of the year. People are spoiled sometimes and want their cookies and milk immediately and don’t give enough due process to the understandable amount of time it takes to do business – common sense folks also….reading guidance published and ignoring bad advice or misinformation. People love to make absurd claims to get attention.

Comments are closed.