As veterans head to college on Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, financial aid delays begin to slowly disappear
By Zach C. Cohen
Army veteran John Kamin applied for funding to help pay for his tuition, housing and books at American University in July of 2009.
Then he waited. And waited.
The money did not come until January 2010, the end of the semester and the beginning of Kamin’s second stint in the Army.
“It feels like it’s a broken promise,” said Kamin, the program manager of the National Veterans Center.
Kamin’s story is not uncommon. The demand for financial aid from the Post-9/11 GI Bill has been high since its inception in 2009. As more veterans return from deployments, many report that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has experienced a backlog, leading to delays in processing payments.
The delays can have real impacts on veterans, he added.
“It sucks for us, and we have to eat more ‘Cup o’ Noodles’ and stuff like that,” Kamin said. “But when you’re dealing with veterans, you have families. You’re dealing with a whole other set of problems that are much more serious and have much more dire consequences.”
According to experts, there’s limited data on the impact of the delays on veterans, but Hayleigh Perez of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group said veterans can become homeless or suffer academically if the money does not arrive on time.
“Student veterans are often faced with extreme financial hardships when transitioning to school for the first time, starting new programs, changing schools or programs,” Perez said in front of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.
Sources of delay
“Military [veterans] are coming home in droves all the way through,” said Valerie Verra, American’s veteran services administrator. “Nobody is prepared for the influx, neither the VA nor the universities, but everybody’s working together.”
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told PBS Newshour in March that 880,000 veterans are enrolled in the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In the last three years, the VA has processed three million claims for benefits.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill built on the Montgomery GI Bill that previously only provided a living stipend to those enrolled in college. Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans can receive aid for tuition, housing and textbooks. But the complexity of the claims under the new bill slowed down the claim-approval process, Kamin said.
The wait for payment is particularly arduous at the start of semesters when the highest number of veterans are working to secure funding for that school term, Michael Dakduk, the executive director of Student Veterans of America, told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs during a hearing in February.
Part of that complication occurs at the university level, where university officials responsible for confirming veterans’ enrollment have to work carefully to navigate the VA’s archaic claim submission system, said Kim Hall, the veterans program administrator at Humboldt State University, and vice president of the National Association of Veterans Program Administrators.
“The level of detailed, often manual work required of school certifying officials is frequently overwhelming,” Hall said at the same committee hearing.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill also passed surprisingly quickly in Congress, leaving some universities unprepared to handle the increased workload associated with it.
“There was no training, nobody taught me how to certify veterans,” Verra said. “I had to get a handbook
Perez also told the Committee on Veterans Affairs that the VA uses two different software programs to track documentation from veterans. When those software programs don’t communicate, veterans like Perez have had to submit the same forms numerous times.
“Student veterans often realize that they themselves and the university have done everything on their end to ensure a timely claim, though months often pass with no payment, no answer from the VA as for the reasoning for such delays,” Perez said.
There has been some work to reduce wait times between submitting claims for GI Bill eligibility and receiving the funds. The VA reports that processing time for Post-9/11 GI Bill claims has decreased to six days.
As more claims are automated from start to finish, veterans have experienced shorter waiting periods.
“It’s been virtually painless,” said Richard Allen Smith, a web communications specialist for the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Routine paperwork necessary to confirm enrollment can be handled automatically in the VA’s Long Term Solution (LTS) software. However, Hall and Smith both noted that setting up the first payment from the VA often requires the most time and paperwork.
Kamin reported similar improvements, even since last semester.
“I have not talked to anyone at the VA who isn’t 100 percent committed to getting work done,” Verra said.
“Institutions of higher learning have been pretty supportive when it comes to supporting student veterans with their tuition and fees,” Dakduk said. “But landlords are not as supportive when it comes to paying your rent.”
Disclosure: Valerie Verra, in her role as veterans services administrator at American University, offered guidance on the “Half the Battle” survey.