May 18, 2007 | In the News
For your information. This is the article that the reporter reached out to me about and I gave her your information. Overall a good article, however, I never said I was CUNY’s veterans coordinator, I told her I worked at LaGuardia as the Veteran’s Office Coordinator. Lastly, I did not say I blame Dod and the VA, I said that they had to fix the problems with their “Seemless Transition Program” – so maybe in a way I did say that but not as it was reported – but I do agree with the statement that most vets do come to us looking for services and referrals. Other than that, as I said – thought it was a good article. Read on…Joe
GI Bill, colleges failing vets
By Terry J. Allen | Special to the Vermont Guardian
With his boyish face and soft tangle of curls, Matt Howard looks like he should have carried a fishing rod though a Norman Rockwell summer. Instead, the 26-year-old Vermonter lugged a gun through two tours in Iraq. Now, what the former Marine really wants to wield is a college diploma. But he and other returning veterans are finding it hard to collect the college benefits they expected when they enlisted in the military.
That expectation was fueled by promises from military recruiters and the soldiersâ€™ own financial commitment. All new recruits are given a one-time, use-it-or-lose-it opportunity to buy into benefits eligibility by paying $100 a month for their first year of service. Any benefits unused 10 years after they leave the military are forever lost, including the $1,200 â€œkicker.â€ The almost 30 percent of active duty veterans who bought in and didnâ€™t collect their educational benefits over the last decade effectively donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury.
Many veterans who applied under the 1984 Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) say they faced black-hole bureaucracy and college costs that far exceeded benefits.
â€œI was so disgusted by how hard it was to get my college benefits, I just gave up,â€ said Howard about his first experience enrolling in the University of Vermont (UVM). â€œI volunteered for the Marines, served in Iraq, and I appreciate the pat on the back and being called hero, but the military sells itself on money for college; it is the major recruitment tool. This is supposedly why I sold my soul to the devil.â€
Because many colleges require payment upfront, and benefit checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) typically arrive months after the semester begins, veterans often have to pony up thousands of dollars in tuition, fees, and living expenses to enter school. Already stressed as they work to acclimate to civilian life, they are forced to choose between going into debt, missing semesters, or exchanging college dreams for low-wage work to support themselves and their families.
â€œIt creates a significant increase in anxiety in a population that is already anxious,â€ said Jim Dooley, a VA mental health clinician in Colchester. â€œThere is also a feeling of betrayal; they are angry enough already.â€
Gone are the post-World War II days when MGIBâ€™s predecessor, the GI Bill of Rights, helped educate 7.8 million of the warâ€™s 16 million veterans and provided a â€œmagic carpet to the middle class.â€ That bill fully covered tuition, books, and fees at any public or private U.S. college or job-training program.
Todayâ€™s MGIB is meager in comparison. Vets who have served more than three years and are enrolled full-time can typically collect $1,075 per month for 36 academic months. The $38,700 total covers about 60 percent of the average cost of college, according to the College Boardâ€™s estimates.
While reservists donâ€™t need to pay the $1,200 to buy into MGIB, their benefits, and the window they have to use them, are prorated by time and type of service and are significantly less than for active duty troops. Some 58 percent of reservists and members of the National Guard, even those who have served multiple combat tours, have not collected money for education.
A few lucky veterans attend schools that have learned how to work the VA system and have established policies that allow vets to pay when benefits arrive, rather than pre-pay for classes. But in the end, whether the VA educational benefits system works for an individual depends on the cost of the school, the vetâ€™s own economic resources and determination, how knowledgeable and helpful the school is, and luck.
Most schools borrow a page from the military by building in a Catch-22: No matter when the vet notifies the VA, the agency wonâ€™t process MGIB paperwork until the vetâ€™s school submits a certificate of enrollment. Although the VA accepts the certificates 3 to 4 months before school starts, most schools wonâ€™t certify students until they begin classes. Last fall, the VA took an average of 16 weeks to process paperwork, and they now average between 8 to 12 weeks. Vets are lucky to get fall tuition payments by Thanksgiving.
â€œBy far, the majority of schools are not certifying before school actually starts,â€ said a New England-based VA official. A regional VA claims examiner puts the figure at â€œabout half.â€
Both VA officials requested anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to media.
UVM submits the certificate of enrollment 30 days before classes start, which still â€œguarantees that VA payments will be months late,â€ said Marie Johnson, UVMâ€™s associate director for customer service for student financial services.
Despite the advance submission, it means vets have to wait well into the semester before they see a VA check.
â€œIâ€™m stressing out because I canâ€™t survive without that check,â€ says Drew Cameron, who served eight months in Iraq. Now a forestry major at UVM, Cameron enrolled in the Army in hopes of getting a college education. â€œEvery single beginning of school year for six semesters there is this huge lag,â€ he said of his experiences both at Community College of Vermont where he first enrolled and now at UVM. â€œI submit my paperwork to the VA on time, but donâ€™t get the check until November.â€
UVM gives its 77 vets a break by requiring them to pay only half the tuition upfront every semester, said Johnson, and the rest in three payments. But that means a full-time, in-state student, living off campus, will have to find $2,500 not just once, but at the start of every academic year.
â€œMaybe they should take out a loan,â€ Johnson suggested.
How willing schools are to let vets start classes before paying â€œdepends how much they got burned by vets in the past,â€ said the regional VA claims administrator.
Hereâ€™s the risk: Because MGIB checks are made out directly to students, they can attend classes, drop out, and leave the school to chase down the debt and struggle with the paperwork.
Southern Connecticut State University certifies some 95 percent of its 400 mostly MGIB vets before classes start, says Jack Mordente, the schoolâ€™s full-time director of Veterans Affairs. â€œI canâ€™t remember the last time we got stiffed, but if we get one a semester thatâ€™s a lot.â€
Johnson also cannot recall when UVM was â€œleft holding the bagâ€ for a vet, but the school puts a block on student records until vets pay. Her hands are tied, she says, by the need to protect the university from the risk that a vet, â€œunderstandably,â€ will use a VA check intended for tuition to meet such unexpected needs as â€œa broken car or a sick family member.â€ On occasion her office has suggested to vets that they delay school and work until they save enough to cover the gap.
â€œOther schools are all over the map,â€ said Johnson. â€œIf they have deeper pockets they can be more flexible.â€
But the system even breaks down when full-tuition funding goes directly to the school as it does for disabled vets. Mike Brennan, who is working toward a masterâ€™s in social work, says it took weeks of prodding to get UVM to fax his paperwork to the VA so that he could get the stipend owed to disabled vets. But â€œat least I was able to start classes on time,â€ he said.
Howard, who gave up on collecting under MGIB, eventually qualified for disability benefits and plans to continue his education.
Some institutions, despite limited resources, trust the vets, adjust the rules, provide hands-on counselors, and file electronically. Most of the schools in the City University of New York (CUNY) system certify students online well before classes begin, says Chris Rosa, in the CUNY office of student affairs.
Alexandru Ivan left the Army in December 2006 after two tours in Iraq. By March he was attending a two-year business administration program at LaGuardia College. Tuition at this CUNY branch is $1,500 a semester, so Ivan has something left over for fees and books, and, at least for now, can supplement living expenses with savings.
â€œIf not for Montgomery, I would not have gone to college,â€ said the 24-year old vet. â€œI just couldnâ€™t have paid for it out of my own pocket.â€
When Ivanâ€™s VA check was late this spring, â€œWe let him start anyway,â€ said Stanley Rumph, LaGuardia Community Collegeâ€™s veterans coordinator. â€œWe have the wherewithal, and we take the risk.â€ Rumph says that vets can go to class even if the school has to wait until end of a semester for the VA to pay up. â€œAnd we have never lost money because of it,â€ he added.
LaGaurdia often checks a box on the VA form requesting a two-month advance payment. It goes to the bursarâ€™s office where the student picks it up and signs it over to the school.
â€œAny school can do that,â€ says Rumph. â€œThe money will come in and these guys are entitled to it.â€
UVM was not aware of that option, Johnson said.
While the delays are an irritation to more affluent students, those most in need cannot bridge the financial gap.
â€œUVM and the VA, they are equally culpable,â€ says Barry, who asked us not to print his real name. The 28-year-old Vermonter went with his National Guard unit to Iraq in 2004 when he was in his sophomore year at UVM. When he returned two years later after driving Humvees on IED-strewn roads around Baghdad, what he needed most was to put his life back on track.
Despite a good academic record, he says UVM refused him entry for the spring â€™07 semester. â€œUVM told me they hadnâ€™t sent in the certificate of enrollment paperwork to the VA, so I couldnâ€™t get the benefits in time for the semester. When I asked, they said they donâ€™t know how that happened and there was no making it right.â€
Barry â€œwas never registered,â€ said UVMâ€™s Registrar Keith Williams, so he couldnâ€™t be certified.
Sympathetic to his plight, Barryâ€™s professor and academic advisor let him attend classes during the weeks of limbo, hoping that the bureaucratic logjam would break. â€œI felt helpless,â€ said Barryâ€™s professor. â€œHe wasnâ€™t a wandering soul; he was very directed and on-track to do something positive not only for himself but for society, in a productive health science career â€” a field where we need more people. But he hit roadblocks.â€
â€œI got angry enough so that I called [Sen. Bernie] Sanders [I-VT],â€ Barry aid, â€œand his office had the problem ironed out in a week, but it was too late to enroll for the spring semester.â€ Sanders office confirmed that it had intervened with the VA.
While only the most sanguine expect the vast VA bureaucracy to bend to individual needs, LaGuardia and Southern Connecticut State show that schools can be responsive and flexible. â€œWe clear vets on the GI bill for classes with a notice saying that money will be coming,â€ says Joe Bello, CUNYâ€™s veterans office coordinator. â€œIt would be a shame if they had to wait a whole semester just because [the VA regional office in] Buffalo failed them.â€
That is what Barry is doing. â€œI lost two years in the service and now I am losing another half year,â€ he says, adding that he hopes to enroll in the fall.
For now, he is unemployed and his mother is worried. â€œHis life was derailed, he was shot at, his friend was killed, and when he got back, he couldnâ€™t continue school. He doesnâ€™t need more stress, he needs the structure of college. I canâ€™t believe that UVM wouldnâ€™t let him go to school. Why donâ€™t they give families a break?â€ she said.
Education: The biggest draw
Vets are troubled not only by when they get their benefits but also by the amount. â€œThey told me I would get all this money for college under the Montgomery bill,â€ said Howard, â€œbut somehow I was so naive that I didnâ€™t know it wasnâ€™t enough to cover school. They were very convincing.â€
With 62 percent of surveyed youth telling a Department of Defense (DoD)-sponsored poll that the war on terrorism made them less likely to enlist, military recruiters are hard-pressed to fill quotas. â€œEducational benefits are a major inducement for many individuals,â€ according to the DoD, â€œand typically are the reason for enlisting cited by the largest percentage of new recruits.â€
While a careful read of recruitment material provides an accurate picture of what vets can expect, a cursory glance at the Army website dangles a level of benefits few will reach. â€œDepending on how long you enlist with the Army and the job you choose, you can get up to $72,900 to help pay for college,â€ the website promises. â€œAll you have to do is give $100 a month during your first year of service.â€
Most vets, however, end up with $38,700 for 36 academic months. The small percent who fail to sign up for the $1,200 â€œkickerâ€ get no educational benefits at all. â€œAt in-processing before basic training,â€ explained Rob Timmons of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association, â€œthey announce you can choose to have $100 taken out of your paycheck every month for the next year. For some, itâ€™s no big deal. But a lot of the disenfranchised who have never even seen $1,200 before in their lives donâ€™t sign up.â€ By missing that one-time opportunity, soldiers forever lose their eligibility to get educational benefits under Montgomery.
A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, proposes eliminating the $1,200 kicker and fully funding college.
â€œAt least half of LaGuardiaâ€™s 113 vets didnâ€™t even know they qualified for benefitsâ€ when they showed up at his office, says Bello. â€œI blame the DoD and by extension the VA.â€
Frustrated by the VA bureaucracy, many vets turn to college administrators who have to tack veteransâ€™ concerns and navigating the VA on to myriad other duties.
That seems to be the case at UVM. Williams acknowledged that the VAâ€™s time lags combined with the administrationâ€™s lack of attention to vetsâ€™ special circumstances creates â€œa perfect formula for frustration. But we are going to change that,â€ he says, pledging to file earlier using quicker on-line options and give vets more personal attention.
Meanwhile, thousands more war-weary vets returning home are in danger of slipping through MGIBâ€™s cracks.
â€œItâ€™s an extremely stressful situation for a newly returned vet,â€ said Howard. â€œThe check is late, the university is breathing down his throat. This is the first dealing with VA that most vets have, and when they come up against shit like this, it discourages them from claiming other benefits, including medical disability, treatments, etc.â€
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