The Department of Veterans Affairs has eliminated the backlog of claims for the Post-9/11 GI Bill that plagued the program when it launched two years ago, officials said Thursday. At the time, the delay meant VA had to issue emergency checks to thousands of student veterans to cover tuition, books and housing. Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, compared the process of implementing the new GI Bill to flying a plane while building it. "Now it's built, and we're flying it, and it's flying very well," Hickey said. Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the government pays a veteran's tuition and fees directly to the school. The veteran also receives a stipend for books and a housing allowance. To date, VA has issued $12.98 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments to more than 596,000 veterans and their educational institutions. The backlog peaked in fall 2009, when VA had 65,000 pending GI Bill claims with an average processing time of 60 days. Today, there are about 23,000 pending claims with an average processing time of 10 days.
VA Education Services Director Keith Wilson attributed the improved turnaround time to additional staff, streamlining, and an electronic system that has replaced manual paperwork. VA now processes about 10,000 Post-9/11 GI Bill enrollments every day. "Remember when we started this, we did not have a process at all," Hickey said. "It was a cold start." VA finally appears to have worked out the kinks, said Navy veteran Dan Erklauer, who attends University of Houston on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. "This semester everything's been done correctly, and we got paid on time," said Erklauer, 27. Erklauer also credited UH for working through the new GI Bill's growing pains. "It took a little while and a lot of people got frustrated, but I'm confidant they have it figured out," he said. "I have no complaints, only good things to say about it now."
VA's initial fumbling of the new GI Bill had threatened to ruin the agency's reputation among America's newest generation of veterans. "The first year was an unmitigated disaster," said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate with the nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The VA had to basically give advances to people. Then the next year was better, but it was still very problematic." Recent changes to the program made claims easier to process, Tarantino said. The changes simplified tuition and fee payments for veterans attending public schools, and established nationwide maximum payments for those enrolled in private or foreign schools. Tarantino said he's cautiously optimistic. "If the VA's truly gotten rid of their backlog, it's going to allow veterans to continue their college education unencumbered by administrative problems and stress and that's exactly what the GI Bill is designed to do," he said. [Source: Houston chronicle Lindsay Wise article 15 Sep 2011 ++]
Eight for-profit colleges, led by the online University of Phoenix (owned by Apollo Group Inc. (APOL)), collected roughly $1 billion in Tuition Assistance Program and VA educational benefit money during the most recent academic year, according to a report by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), chaired by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). The report was released at a press conference this past Thursday, at which TREA was represented by Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders. Those colleges got about a quarter of all of the Post 9/11 GI Bill money spent during the 2010-2011, according to Senator Harkin. The University of Phoenix alone received $210 million, almost three times as much as a year earlier, he said. There is a so-called â90/10 ruleâ that limits the amount of federal money going to these schools to no more than 90 percent of their revenue. Veterans‘ and military tuition programs are excluded from the cap, and as a result the colleges have aggressively recruited beneficiaries, according to the HELP committee report. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) suggested at the press conference 22 SEP that the cap might be expanded to include those programs.
According to for-profit college spokespeople, limiting veteran tuition funds that can go to for-profit colleges would hurt students. Staff Sergeant Jon Elliot (USA-Ret), who received the Bronze Star for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he signed up for auto mechanics classes at ATI Career Training Center, based in North Richland Hills, Texas, after a recruiter told him Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits would cover the costs. Months later, Elliot discovered the program in Garland, Texas, wasn‘t approved for the benefits, and the school sent him a bill for $9,600, he said at the news conference. According to SSG Elliot, he got a telephone call the night before the press conference from the school, saying his tuition bill had been forgiven. âMaybe it‘s just coincidence,â he said. âI don‘t want to speculate.â Additionally, the Department of Education issued âgainful employmentâ regulations this year that would cut off federal student aid to for-profit colleges whose students struggle the most to repay government loans. Many of these schools have dropout rates that sometimes exceed 50% or even 60%, while the average is much lower for more traditional schools, often around 10-15%. For-profit schools, and their lobbyists, oppose those rules and have filed a lawsuit against them. [Source: TREA News for the Enlisted 23 Sep 2011 ++]