Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Submission For The Record of Student Veterans of America
Madam Chairwoman, Mr. Ranking Member, and Members of this Subcommittee,
It is once again a privilege to be able to provide testimony on behalf of our Nation's student veterans regarding their GI Bill benefits. Thank you for providing us with this important opportunity.
As you know, this past year was the first with student veterans using the Post 9/11 GI Bill. It was one of monumental challenges and victories. We saw hundreds of thousands of new veterans going to college with billions of dollars worth of Federal support, we saw some colleges and universities have their veteran population double or more in a single year, and we saw the VA working with our organization, schools, and individual student veterans to overcome difficulties that could have been devastating.
This time last year, we waited anxiously to see if the benefits that were promised to our veterans would arrive in a timely fashion. As this committee is all too aware, it was some time before most veterans received their housing allowances, a brand new benefit never before paid on such a large scale. This benefit represented a fundamental change in the way veterans interacted with the VA. Until this point, GI Bill benefits for the vast majority of veterans barely covered books and some tuition. The Post 9/11 GI Bill promised the opportunity for veterans to focus on school full-time, without needing support from family or a job. Many took this opportunity literally, and enrolled in a full load of coursework and left their jobs.
When the housing allowances were late, veterans were put in the awful position of having to choose between paying their rent or staying school. This kind of pressure should never be put on a veteran again, and we are glad to see that it has been overcome. The Emergency Advanced Payment program that the VA instituted went a long way to alleviate some of these concerns, though that was not without its own issues, as we are all aware of.
The schools struggled as well, not knowing when their tuition payments would be arriving from the VA, and while many did the right thing and held the veterans harmless for the amount promised under the benefit, some dis-enrolled student veterans for lack of payment. We were proud to assist Members of Congress in bringing these incidents to the attention of university leadership so that most veterans could be brought back into the classroom, but the damage was still done.
Beyond all of these issues that were identified last year, we learned some fundamental lessons that need to be taken into account for all future decisions made regarding student veterans:
- The VA needs to do significantly more outreach to individual student veterans and schools. Above all else, we found that there were so many differing stories being passed around that it was challenging for veterans to know what the truth was. Schools were doing their own thing or putting out information in the vacuum that was contrary to what the VA was asking for. Despite the VA's significantly increased social media presence, their primary means of communicating with recipients is still paper mail. This is not only terribly expensive; it is not an effective means of communicating. Worse, school certifying officials do not get copies of these letters, so they do not usually know if there is a problem with a veteran's account that they themselves could fix. An email listserv that vets could sign up for would go a long way to rectify this problem and facilitate direct communication between the vets and the VA.
- There is no formal way for schools or VSOs to advocate on behalf of veterans who need help. When there is an issue with a veteran's account and for some reason they are not receiving their payments correctly, there is no established way for certifying officials or VSOs to contact a VA benefits processor to have them look into it. This can be very challenging for student veterans who may not understand what they are supposed to do to rectify the issues that we causing the problems. Given how important the housing allowances are for the daily life of most student veterans, it is essential that we allow schools and VSOs to advocate on their behalf and ensure the problems are rectified quickly and correctly. There needs to be some formal process to bring the VA's attention to trouble accounts by the people who understand the policies and procedures, not just via 888-GIBILL1.
- School certifying officials need significantly more training, guidance, and resources from the VA. School certifying officials are the individuals who are responsible for ensuring that our student veterans receive their benefits. They are the employees of private universities, or state employees for public institutions. They have no formal relationship with the VA, except that they are expected to file a veteran's status with the VA every semester so that veterans can receive their tuition and other entitlements. These individuals have seen their workload double and triple in the last year, as a Chapter 33 filing process is significantly more time consuming for the certifying officials. Unfortunately, however, their schools have not seen the increased resources to keep up with this demand, and many have actually reduced their certifying staff in light of the budget crisis.
The relationship between the student veteran, the school, the state approving agency, and the VA has not been formally reviewed in some time. There is no standardized chain of command for raising issues, for solving problems, and especially for soliciting feedback as to how the process is working. We hope that this committee and others will take time to examine these relationships and processes in the near future.
Over the last year, student veterans have provided us with the following messages that we would like to share with you:
- The benefit is too complicated, and even after all of the paperwork is filled out, veterans don't know what they are receiving.
- The Post 9/11 GI Bill does not provide the housing allowance to our tens of thousands of distance learners, forcing them to spend much more time earning their degree than others.
- Tens of thousands of our National Guardsmen have been left out of their earned benefits after being called up to serve in their communities for emergency response and disasters.
- There is no way for veterans to know what the status of their benefit claim is, nor how much it will cover until after they start school.
- Processing delays are not being taken seriously by the VA, and when veterans call to ask about the status of their claim, they are often given unrealistic or incorrect timeframes on when they can expect to hear back.
- When processing errors are made, it is very difficult to get them changed without third-party intervention. No one on the 888-GIBILL1 phone number seems to know how to correct them.
- The VA is very aggressive in recouping debts due to overpayment, even if they are not the veteran's fault. Especially when it comes to tuition overpayment directly to the schools, the veteran should not have their benefits garnished for this overpayment without the VA first contacting the school and trying to recoup the funding that way.
- The VA must quickly and accurately update the BAH rates and the tuition rates when they change and say they are going to. It is unacceptable that they are just now paying the 2010 BAH rate, and that tuition/fees rates were published only recently. These numbers are important for schools and veterans to make informed decisions, and they need to be published on time and accurately.
- When the VA awards a benefit rating that turns out to be higher than a veteran is due, they should not be able to go back mid-semester and reduce it. The student veteran should be able stay at that rate at least until the end of the school year before they have their rate reduced so they can make an informed decision about their finances.
- The Post 9/11 GI Bill does not provide enough benefits for veterans to complete 5-year engineering degrees or other high-intensity programs.
We will let the schools and their organizations represent themselves on the issues that they have faced, but we have certainly seen the effects of under-resourced veterans offices attempting to provide services to a growing veteran population. This is something that must be immediately corrected, and efforts such as Chairman Filner's HR 3579 to increase the reporting fees for every veteran at an institution would go a long way to address this.
Looking forward, there are many issues to correct in the Post 9/11 GI Bill, some of which we have highlighted here. The complicated state-by-state system must be eliminated so that all veterans are worth the same in all states, and know what their benefits are worth before they apply to school. The rest of the veteran population must be brought into the fold so that they receive the same benefits at all institutions and the eligibility pool is the same as previous era GI Bills.
To this end, the best way to address these concerns going forward, and to reduce the burdensome claims process of the VA, we strongly support Congressman Minnick's H.R. 5933, and we thank you, Madam Chairwoman, as well as your colleagues, for signing on to this Bill. Expanding the benefit pool for all eligible veterans is of extreme importance to our members, and so is being able to use this in all types of programs. In addition, this bill closes important loopholes that provide significant cost savings for the future of the program. We are looking forward to the day when there are only two GI Bills for veterans to choose from: one for disabled veterans under Vocational Rehabilitation, and one for those who are not disabled with the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Implementing this legislation is
Student Veterans of America looks forward to working with this esteemed committee and its Members to continue to improve education benefits for all veterans. It is of the utmost importance that we take this opportunity to perfect this benefit before more veterans go underserved and schools continue to struggle.