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Witness Testimony of Charles Rowe, National Association of State Approving Agencies, President, and Chief, State Approving Agency, New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs

 Introduction

Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and members of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, I am pleased to appear before you today on behalf of the National Association of State Approving Agencies (NASAA) to provide NASAA's view on the current state of the MGIB-AD and MGIB-SR, to make recommendations to update the MGIB, and to recommend possible legislation to be considered by the Subcommittee. 

Remarks: 

  1. Current State of the MGIB-AD

The fundamentals of the active duty GI Bill remain essentially sound.  The recent changes allowing flexibility in MGIB utilization for accelerated payments and payments for Licensing and Certification have been viewed positively by benefit recipients, and annual COLA readjustments are important in the effort to keep pace with the rising cost of an education. 

Of course, it is widely known that the cost of an education in this country has out stripped the inflation rate by a wide margin for a number of years, and as a result the educational benefits provided to our MGIB recipients under its various Chapters continue to fall far short of actually paying for all of an college education, and in fact are paying for an increasing smaller and smaller percentage of that education. 

We find it very unfortunate that the increased benefits rates for Apprenticeships and Other On-the-Job Training (OJT) are being allowed to lapse back to their previous rates on the first of the year in 2008.  The increased rates of 85% for the first six (6) months, 65% for the next six (6) months, and 45% for the remainder of the training was viewed as a good step towards equity with those veterans who are receiving benefits because they are able to choose either educational or vocational objectives at Institutes of Higher Learning or Non-College Degree Programs. 

The return to a lower reimbursement rate for those in the OJT and Apprenticeship programs will mark the first time most of us have had the experience of watching an MGIB benefit decrease, and we know, by way of feedback from the field, that this benefit reduction is not being greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Additionally, from NASAA's perspective, we remain convinced that the members of active military who choose to use the MGIB while still in the active service should not be penalized by the having the entitlement reduction calculations made differently from those eligible veterans who have already left the service. 

The speed of benefit payment for benefit recipients enrolled in schools, particularly after the initial waiting period for the first semester, seems to have improved because of the implementation of VAONCE. 

At the same time the delays encountered for the payments of benefits to those benefit recipients receiving either Apprenticeship or OJT remain exceeding slow.  The initial wait for OJT benefits, for instance, is routinely in the six (6) to eight (8) month time frame. 

As an example many Police Officers will receive their first benefit check while still attending an eight (8) weeks academy, while the same veteran easily wait six (6) months before receiving his or her first request for hours worked under OJT or Apprenticeship. 

  1. Current State of the MGIB-SR

As you know, the MGIB-SR (Chapter 1606) had traditionally been pro-rated to the MGIB-AD (Chapter 30).  The SR rate was historically about 47% of the benefit amount paid to the AD component.  Ironically, about the same time the rates for AD and SR became decoupled, and the SR payment rates decreased to its historical low of about 29%, roughly where it remains today, the operational tempo for the Selected Reserve component increased to its historical high, roughly where it also remains today.

This decoupling of the historical benefit ratios between AD and SR benefits took place because the two sides of the MGIB, AD and SR, are respectively located in two different Titles of the US Code, Title 38 for the AD component, and Title 10 for the SR component. 

The effort to redress this decreased benefit and increased usage of the SR component resulted in REAP, the Reserve Educational Assistance Program, or Chapter 1607 by which it is also known.  REAP has been well received, but continues to have its own issues.  The first of these is that in some parts of the country REAP is either not widely known and/or not widely understood by the Selected Reservists themselves. 

Additionally, as currently constructed, the REAP benefit ceases as soon as the member leaves the service, even after honorably completing his or her six (6) years of obligated service.  Moreover, even members of the Guard or Reservists who have successfully completed an entire career in their respective service, and who may have recently been deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan find it shocking when they are informed that they do not have educational benefits due them when they retire.  More frequently they are denied educational benefits they were lead to believe they had, when they first apply to the VA for those education benefits. 

The experience of our members in NASAA has been that the Selected Reserve members themselves generally have a poor understanding of the MGIB-SR benefits that they actually have, and most of the time they thought the educational benefits were significantly more than they turned out to be, and a large portion of them were completely unaware of the reality that their educational benefits were entirely lost when they finished their obligation, particularly surprised are those who retire after a career of service. 

Another unpleasant surprise for members of the Guard and Reservists returning from a second overseas deployment is that REAP, as currently configured, provides the educational benefit for the longest of the two (2) deployments, and is not based on the cumulative sum of months deployed, which effectively guarantees that for educational benefit purposes, one of the deployments, "doesn't count."

Finally, the requirement for the DOD and VA to interact on eligibility issues, and the fact that the St. Louis RPO is responsible for handling the Chapter 1606 and Chapter 1607 benefit payments for Flight Training, Correspondence programs, Apprenticeship and Other On-the-Job Training (OJT) adds another level of complexity and delay to a system already stressed. 

  1. Recommendations to Update the MGIB

NASAA stands 100% behind the concept of a "Total Force GI Bill" and that issue is, and has been for some time, the #1 item on NASAA's Legislative Agenda (attached).  As stated in our Legislative Agenda, "Replace Chapters 30, 1606 and 1607 with A TOTAL FORCE GI BILL.  This would provide MGIB reimbursement rate levels based on an individual's service in the Armed Forces, including the National Guard and Reserve.  

There are number of excellent reasons to adopt the concept of a Total Force GI Bill:

  1. Portability- The dramatically increased, and ever-increasing, utilization of the Selected Reserve component of our Armed Services led to the creation of the REAP benefit.  That in turn has had two (2) unintended, but nonetheless, adverse consequences for SR component members entitled to both Chapter 1606 and Chapter 1607 benefits. 

The first is that a member of the Guard who knows his or her unit is due for deployment will refrain from using his Chapter 1606 benefits while he or she is drilling, and might otherwise have been in a position to use his or her benefits, because he or she knows that if (s)he gets deployed (s)he will not be able to finish his or her studies, and may even be forced to withdraw during the semester resulting in an overpayment issue. 

The second is that he or she may decide instead to wait to attend school, based on the notion that his/her educational benefits will increase as a result of his/her deployment.  Unfortunately, when (s)he returns and finally has the opportunity to use those Chapter 1607 benefits, in many case, (s)he finds out that those increased educational benefits aren't available because, either through completion of obligation or retirement, he or she is no longer drilling. 

The Total Force GI Bill resolves these issues because of its feature that replaces Chapter 1607 with its month of educational benefit for month of active service and portability provisions. 

  1. Fairness - The common notions of fairness, require equal benefit for equal service.  The concept of having educational benefits commensurate with sacrifice is at the heart of our preferred update to the MGIB, the Total Force GI Bill. 

At a time when the Selected Reservists are asked to sacrifice like never before, to risk life and limb in the same arduous and hostile environments as the active forces, there is no realistic way to defend the current MGIB's benefit discrepancies to the those warriors who have served together on those dangerous deployments. 

As discussed above, many of the SR members actually assume that equity is built into the MGIB, and are gravely disappointed when they discover that the current complex system is really three (3) separate Chapters which reward service at varying, seemingly arbitrary levels. 

In many cases the educational benefits are simply incomprehensible to them. 

  1. For instance, should a member of the Guard receive the same benefit for 91 days or 364 days of service? 
  2. If he or she is lucky enough to have been deployed for 366 days, should his or her educational benefits be increased by 50% (40% to 60%) for those 2 extra days?
  3. Should one Selected Reservist miss out on educational benefits because that member has only 6 months of obligated service left?  While at the same  time another member of the same unit who was deployed with him or her and who has four (4) years of obligated service remaining will receive those educational benefits. 
  4. Should a Master Sergeant with decades of service, and multiple deployments find out either just before he or she retires, or soon thereafter that (s)he has absolutely no educational benefit whatsoever, after all of that dedicated and dangerous service to our country?

The Total Force GI Bill resolves these issues because of its feature that replaces Chapter 1607 with its month of educational benefit for month of active service and portability provisions. 

  1. Administration - The complexities in the administration of the various Chapters of the MGIB are legendary.  The current configuration of the MGIB which forces endless interactions between DOD and the VA, with separate, and often incompatible, IT support systems unnecessarily places burdens on all parties reliant on the in-place administrative architecture of the MGIB. 

The Total Force GI Bill by shifting most responsibilities into Title 38, by recommending state of the art and integrated IT systems, by recommending simplified educational benefit and payment schemes, by streamlining claims processing, and by reducing administrative redundancies the actual understanding of and payment of benefits will be simplified. 

  1. Legislative Action

NASAA feels strongly that the hard won increase of benefits which were provided to those utilizing the Apprenticeship and OJT benefits, which increased to monthly benefit rate by 10% across the board, should not be allowed to lapse.  We strongly support any legislation which would seek to prevent that drop in the benefit rate. 

We believe that a host of irregularities which arise under in the current MGIB educational benefit structure will only be solved by adopting the new structure provided by the Total Force GI Bill.  The three (3) separate MGIB Chapters 30, 1606, 1607 at various times control and/or conflict when determining payment to an eligible benefit recipient. 

For instance, a veteran who has not used any of his or her educational benefits, and who is now also an active reservist, and has just returned from deployment, faces a series of decisions regarding how and when to use which of his or her available educational benefits.  The complexities and lack of understanding regarding these various options is staggering, and as a result the entire system is not being served well. 

It is NASAA's position that key to resolving a constellation of troublesome issues, is to place the MGIB-AD and MGIB-SR into Title 38, USC.  This one move will then force the real integration of the MGIB to reflect the actual integration which has already taken place within the Armed Services.  We fully support any legislation which seeks to accomplish that goal. 

Summary

NASAA wholeheartedly supports the Total Force GI Bill.  We believe the events have overtaken the original 1985 edition of the MGIB.  Our experiences today are leading us strongly to the conclusion that a major overhaul of the MGIB is now overdue. 

Once the Selected Reservists were seen as part of the total force structure, and certainly once they started being utilized as an integral part of a total force which has been our collective experience for over six (6) years now, then surely it is time for a GI Bill which reflects the concept of the total force, a Total Force GI Bill.

Closing

In closing, Mrs. Chairwoman, I would like to thank you for provide me with the opportunity to present NASAA's views on these vital issues.  Thank you also for efforts that you and your committee have been putting forth to improve to the educational and training benefits for those who wear the uniform of this nation's military.  I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.


Legislative Agenda
Adopted By the Association July 19, 2006
Major Recommendations

  1. Recommendation – Replace Chapters 30, 1606 and 1607 with A Total Force GI Bill.   This Bill would provide MGIB reimbursement rate levels based on an individual’s service in the Armed Forces, including the National Guard and Reserve. 
  1. The first tier -- similar to the current Montgomery GI Bill, Active Duty (MGIB-AD) 3-year rate -- would be provided to all who enlist for active duty.  Service entrants would receive 36 months of benefits at the AD Rate. 
  2. The second tier or level would be for all who enlist or re-enlist in the Selected Reserve (SelRes) for 6 years, and this would entitle them to 36 months of benefits at a pro-rata amount of the active duty rate (Initial ratio in 1985 was 47%)
  3. The third tier would be for members of the SelRes and Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) who are activated for at least 90 days.  They would receive one month of benefit for each month of activation, up to a total of 36 months, at the active duty rate.  These months of full benefits would replace, month-for-month, any SelRes entitlements at the second tier.  The maximum benefit a member of the SelRes could receive under this provision would be the equivalent of 36 months at the active duty rate.  (Note: Maximum benefit is without consideration to multiple entitlements.)

An individual would have up to 10 years to use the active duty or activated-service benefit from their last date of active/activated duty or reserve service, whichever is later.   A Selected Reservist could use remaining second tier MGIB benefits as long as he/she were satisfactorily participating in the SelRes, and for up to 10 years following separation from the reserves in the case of separation for disability or qualification for a reserve retirement at age 60.

All provisions (e.g. additional contributions), and programs (e.g. accelerated payments, approved test fee reimbursement, etc.) eligible for payment under the current MGIB-AD program would be available under all three levels.  Under this plan DOD would continue to be able to provide Recruitment and Retention incentives such as loan repayment, kickers for “college”, and enlistment bonuses.

Rationale:  A major reason for this recommendation is equity for members of the Selected Reserve and Ready Reserve who are called to active duty service – equal programs and opportunities for equal service to country.

The proposal also provides an additional recruitment incentive to the Selected Reserve Forces since the new program would include a transition and readjustment provision for members who are activated for more than 90 days.

Placing the Total Force GI Bill within Title 38 USC will greatly simplify the administration of the (GI Bill) educational assistance program for all members of the armed services, both Active Duty and Reserve Forces, as well as ensure that all future benefits are upgraded equitably.

The GI Bill has traditionally been viewed as a grateful Nation’s way of showing its appreciation for the sacrifices of service, separation, and combat.  The new Total Force GI Bill reflects the new realities which have transformed this nation’s security environment since the second week of September ’01.

  1. Recommendation – Continue to expand the readjustment purpose of the Veterans’ educational assistance programs to permit continuous training, retraining, re-licensing and enrollment in skill improvement courses.  For example, revise Section 3452 (c) of Title 38, U.S. Code to provide for the use of VA educational assistance benefits for enrollment in any unit course or subject, or combination of courses or subjects (Title 38 terminology) necessary to obtain, maintain, or advance in a profession or vocation. 

Rationale:  In today’s society the concept of lifelong learning has risen to a new level of importance.  Very few occupations or professions remain static; there is the constant requirement for workers to upgrade their knowledge and skills in order to remain competitive.  The current educational earned benefit programs for veterans and other eligible persons generally require the VA beneficiary to be enrolled in a full-scale program of education; i.e., one that leads to a traditional degree, diploma or certificate.  Although recent legislation provides more flexibility, there is still the need to permit even greater use of benefits for enrollment in short-term learning experiences that will help a veteran to maintain a level of expertise commensurate with the on going demands of their chosen occupation or profession.  A key phrase that expresses the intent of this recommendation already is embedded in law – education and training that qualifies the eligible person “to enter into, maintain or advance in employment in a predetermined and identified vocation or profession”.

As stated, the law already provides for limited use of benefits for course(s) “to fulfill requirements for the attainment of a license or certificate…..in a high technology occupation”.  The specific example expands the provision to all professions and vocations/occupations; recognizes that a single unit course or subject may be all that a veteran needs to obtain, maintain, or advance in a profession or vocation; and, provides for the use of benefits while enrolled in a subject or a combination of subjects without requiring a connection to a license or certificate. 

  1.  Recommendation – Continue the rate of educational assistance benefits currently in place for veterans enrolled in Apprenticeship and other On-the-Job Training programs.

Rationale:  The law was changed, effective October 1, 2005, to increase the rate of benefits received by veterans and other eligible persons who are enrolled in apprenticeship and OJT programs.  The rate is now 85% of the full time institutional rate for the first six months, 65% for the second six months of training and then 45% for the third and any succeeding period of time.  This increase is for a limited period of time – it expires on September 30 of 2007.  It is a too early to know for sure, but early indications are that the increases have had a positive effect on the ability of veterans to use this way of gaining knowledge and skills for the occupations or professions of their choice.  In combination with extensive outreach activities, there has been a 39.9% increase in the number of approved and active training establishments from 1997 to 2003, and a 53.8% increase in the number of program approval actions at job training establishments from 1997 to 2005.  We anticipate continual growth in the use of job training programs.

Legislative Agenda, Part 2 – Other Recommendations
Adopted By the Association July 19, 2006 (unless otherwise noted)

  1. Recommendation – Rescind $1200 pay reduction for MGIB, Chapter 30, eligibility.

Rationale:  This requirement for MGIB eligibility is not consistent with the true intent of a grateful nation to provide a GI Bill to those who serve in its defense.  It also is not consistent with most past GI Bills that we have enacted.  It is time to rescind this requirement.

  1. Recommendation – Provide an “open window” to Chapter 32 period service members to enroll in the MGIB and for other active duty service members to withdraw their election to not enroll in the MGIB.

Rationale:  There are still many service members on active duty who did not participate in or who withdrew their contributions to the Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program (VEAP).  Equally important is the fact that some other active duty service members are not eligible for the MGIB.  Many of these have served and will continue to serve “on the front lines” in the defense of our Nation.  All current service members should have access to the same education and training opportunities as their counterparts who are eligible for benefits under Chapter 30.

  1. Recommendation – Revise the method by which entitlement is charged to service members who use their GI Bill while serving on active duty so that the charge is the same as that applied to all other VA benefit eligible persons.

Rationale:  Service members who use their GI Bill while serving on active duty should not be penalized for doing so.  Current law reduces the service member’s entitlement one month for each month of enrollment regardless of the rate of pursuit and benefits received.  We believe that this practice is totally unfair and unjustifiable.

  1. Recommendation – Revise Section 3014A to allow accelerated payment of basic educational assistance for education leading to employment in industries other than “high technology” and place limitations on the length of such programs for use of the provision.  Additionally, revise the section to allow the VA to use only the MGIB “base rate” as the basis for the accelerated payment 200% calculation, not the base rate plus “kickers”, optional contributions, etc., as currently factored into the “otherwise payable benefit”. 

Rationale:  Even with the recent increases in the monthly benefit amount, some veterans find it cost prohibitive to enroll in an institutional program that will provide the knowledge and skills necessary for them to reach their occupational or professional objective.  Removing the current restriction that requires enrollment in a program that leads to employment in a high technology industry would allow greater opportunities for more veterans to use their GI Bill benefits.  Additionally, revise the law to limit the length of a program that qualifies for accelerated payment to two years.  The discussions that led up to the enactment of the original legislation centered on short term high technology courses.  The language that was enacted does not impose any limitations on length, therefore all high technology programs, including many four year degree programs, qualify.

The recommendation regarding the use of the “base rate” is offered because veterans who take advantage of the $600.00 buy-in, are 34/30 conversions, have kickers, or any combination of these programs can be penalized by having their additional monthly payment amount disqualify them for accelerated payment under the current calculation method.

  1. Recommendation – Revise the period of operation (two year) rule to exempt certain non-degree programs.  The programs would be ones that are offered by (1) an accredited, degree granting, proprietary for profit or not for profit educational institution or (2) a degree offering branch of such institutions when the institution has at least one degree program already approved for GI Bill purposes.

Rationale:  The intent of Congress when it revised the period of operation rule in 1996 can be found in several documents issued during 1995 and 1996.  The following excerpt taken from the Explanatory Statement on S. 1711, As Amended, summarizes that intent.  “Section 201 of H.R. 3673 would: (a) remove the two year rule restriction on all degree granting institutions, including branch campuses (but not on non-degree granting institutions)…”  Changing the rule in accordance with the Recommendation would affect branch locations since in most, if not all, cases the parent campus will have been in operation for two years before attaining accreditation.  The change also would be consistent with the determinations that already have been made about the quality and integrity of the degree programs offered by the institution and the capacity of the institution to fulfill its commitment to students.  

  1. Recommendation – Revise certain Sections of Title 38, U.S. Code that pertain to Correspondence courses; specifically Section 3672(e) by reducing the six month requirement to complete the program or course to three months, Section 3686(a)(1) by increasing the educational assistance allowance payable from 55 percent to 60 percent of reimbursable costs, and Section 3686(b) by reducing the ten day enrollment affirmation period to five days.

Rationale:  The law governing the administration of correspondence courses was written in a time before there was wide spread use of computers and the internet.  Technology is such today that it provides instantaneous interaction between the student and instructor.  The need to insure that ample time for ‘mail to arrive” is no longer a factor.  A five day affirmation period and a three month learning experience are both supported by communication standards of the day and in line with the changing learning environments of the 21st Century.  Condensed, short term programs of education are offered by various institutions and can fulfill the needs of many veterans as they pursue their occupational or professional goals.

  1. Recommendation – Revise Section 3680A(a)(4) by adding a new subpart, “or (C) remedial or deficiency courses required by an accredited institution of higher learning for entrance into one of their approved postsecondary programs of education”. 

The law currently provides for the payment of VA educational assistance benefits for enrollment in remedial and deficiency courses required for successful entrance and completion of a degree, diploma or certificate program of education if required by the postsecondary educational institution in which the veteran is seeking to enroll.  These types of courses are currently offered by postsecondary institutions as a traditional classroom experience or through technology as online education.  This change would provide veterans with opportunities to use their benefits when enrolled in either delivery mode; online course enrollments are currently prohibited.  

  1. Recommendation – Revise Section 16162(c)(3) of Chapter 1607 of Title 10, U.S. Code to eliminate the further reduction of benefits for veterans enrolled in flight training and correspondence programs by including the word “not” in the last phrase of the sentence which constitutes the section.  [“…, that rate shall not be further adjusted by the applicable percent specified in paragraph (4).”]     (This recommendation accepted September 14, 2006)

Rationale:  Under the current wording of the law, a member of the Selected Reserve who is activated and qualifies for the Chapter 1607 program would receive less in GI Bill benefits for flight and correspondence programs than a Chapter 1606 eligible member who is not activated.  This is due to the multiple calculations required by Section 16162(c)(3) of Chapter 1607 of Title 10.  At a minimum, the law should be revised to the extent that it provides at least the same level of benefits to a Chapter 1607 eligible person as it does for those who qualify for Chapter 1606.

  1.  Recommendation - Remove veterans’ educational assistance benefits from all calculations for determining eligibility for Title IV, Student Financial Aid.

Rationale:  GI Bill benefits are intended to be an entitlement to which all who serve in the Armed Forces of our Nation are eligible.  Moreover, it has always been the intent of Congress that the GI Bill be the premier program in our Nation to help our citizens to further their education and training.  Inclusion of GI Bill benefits in any formula for determining the amount of student financial aid available under other federal programs is not consistent with these goals nor the sacrifices made by those who protect the freedoms that we all so thoroughly enjoy.

  1. Recommendation – Reinstate the Veterans Education Outreach Program.

Rationale:  For many years the Veterans Education Outreach Program (VEOP) and its predecessor, the Veterans Cost of Instruction Program, were very successful in reaching out and providing assistance to veterans.  A campus-based program, VEOP helped to inspire and build confidence in those who were hesitant to use their GI Bill educational assistance benefits.  External services ranged from general outreach activities such as public service announcements and the production of information documents to participation in local and statewide career fairs.  Internal services included career and personal counseling and assistance with the completion of documents associated with the enrollment in a program of education as well as those for the GI Bill benefits for which the veteran was entitled.  The Montgomery GI Bill has been in existence since 1985 and although veterans have $1200 of their own money invested, usage of the program remains relatively low.  It is time for this once proven effective program to be reinstated with appropriate provisions to insure its success within the context of its intended purpose so as to maximize the opportunities for cooperation between and contributions by educational institutions, the Department of Veterans Affairs and State Approving Agencies.