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Witness Testimony of Faith DesLauriers, National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators, Legislative Director

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Concerns NAVPA hears from veterans regarding their educational benefits:

  • Students pursuing their education through Distance Learning should have the same eligibility for housing stipends as students attending what is defined as in-residence training.  
  • Retired and/or separated veterans, who earned and are otherwise eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, have voiced their extreme disappointment in being denied the ability to transfer their entitlement to their dependents
  • Veterans have voiced their concern that the ability to pursue their educational endeavors are restricted to that which is deemed by congress to be traditional.  
  • Students don’t understand why VA distinguishes between tuition and fees with different caps for each rather than combining them into one maximum
  • Students are concerned that the VA remains unable to credit refunds made by the schools to their accounts.
  • Veterans are receiving letters from the Debt Management Center Although, these students are current with the payment plans negotiated with DMC in an effort to repay the emergency advance payments from fall 2009

Feedback NAVPA has from schools:

  • There is a critical need for consistent guidance as to the correct procedures for returning or refunding payments, as well the assurance that funds returned to the VA will in fact, be credited to veteran’s debts/overpayments.
  • Many students who access their education benefits are placed at a financial disadvantage because of DVA’s policy to count class enrollment sessions versus term enrollments periods. 
  • It is imperative that an efficient communication mechanism be established between schools and the VA. 
  • Inconsistent guidance to schools among and between RPOs and ELRs continues to be problematic. 
  • Responsibilities associated with this program have increased the processing time for each claim at the school level approximately 300 perce3nt% yet institutions continue to be compensated at the rate of $7 for each student enrolled in most VA educational benefits, a rate that has not changed in over 30 years.
  •  Reinstate the customer service units at each of the RPO’s specifically to work with Veterans Program Administrators.

Improvements to Chapter 33 that NAVPA Believes are needed:

  • GI Bills must remain an earned entitlement and not become a “need-based award” – leave other scholarships, grants, etc, out of the equation.
  • Eliminate inequities among rates paid to eligible individuals for attendance at schools of different types – public, private, foreign, graduate, undergraduate, resident or non-resident.
  • Elimination of annual state tuition and fee maximums would improve timing of certification, processing, and payment accuracy. 
  • Tie the living stipend to training time for all forms of course delivery and reduce the minimum training time requirement to half-time, rather than more than half-time. 
  • Correct the rule that makes it impossible for a reserve component member eligible at less than the 100% tier of Chapter 33, to combine federal Tuition Assistance (first pay) and Ch 33 (second pay) in any way that would cover all their charges. 
  • Clarify Non-duplication of a Federal program. 
  • NAVPA members fully support legislation which would expand the student work study program. 
  • Overpayments created by the eligible individual as a result of a reduction or termination of enrollment should be recovered from entitlement.
  • NAVPA Recommends elimination of the multiple levels of eligibility as it relates to required active duty service. 
  • Amend Chapter 33 to expand educational and training opportunities such as OJT/Apprenticeships and other viable and previously approved vocational training opportunities.
  • Continue to work toward providing equity in benefit and simplicity in rules regarding eligibility, payments and the overall administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. 

Good afternoon Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking member Boozman, and Members of the Subcommittee.  Accompanying me today is Margaret Baechtold, Director Veterans Support Services, Indiana University.  We appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today and for the opportunity to share the concerns and recommendations of veterans’ program administrators, as well as that of the population they serve regarding educational benefits.

 Concerns we hear from veterans regarding their educational benefits

  • Students pursuing their education through Distance Learning should have the same eligibility for housing stipends as students attending what is defined as in-residence training.   Veterans should not be penalized for being responsible, disciplined adult learners, for putting their family first or whatever reason (personal, professional, geographical, etc.) one might have for choosing a mode of study other than that which is strictly defined as “in-residence” training.  Veterans training under all other GI Bill programs receive full benefit reimbursement for pursuit of programs through distance learning.   
  • Veterans have voiced their concern that the ability to pursue their educational endeavors are restricted to that which is deemed by congress to be traditional.   This not only restricts the method/modality by which they receive their educational plans, but restricts their personal choice in educational and training institutions, as well as careers. 
  • Retired and/or separated veterans, who earned and are otherwise eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, have voiced their extreme disappointment in being denied the ability to transfer their entitlement to their dependents.
  • Students don’t understand why VA distinguishes between tuition and fees with different caps for each rather than combining them into one maximum, particularly for determining the maximum payment allowed for enrollment at private schools, out-of-state residents in the public sector, and graduate/professional enrollments in both.
  • Students are concerned that the VA remains unable to credit refunds made by the schools to their accounts.  Consequently, a debt or overpayment is created and payments are withheld from living stipends, book stipends and kickers to recoup a debt that does not exist.  What is even more critical is the fact that this is negatively impacting their credit scores, credit card companies are cancelling their credit line and in many cases veteran students who counted on the promise of a housing allowance each month, are being evicted from their homes for a debt that does not exist.
  • Veterans are receiving letters from the Debt Management Center (DMC) stating “The following information on your delinquent indebtedness, along with your name and address, was reported to a number of consumer reporting agencies”.  Although, these students are current with the payment plans negotiated with DMC in an effort to repay the emergency advance payments from fall 2009.

Feedback we have from schools administering education benefits:

  • There is a critical need for consistent guidance as to the correct procedures for returning or refunding payments, as well the assurance that funds returned to the VA will in fact, be credited to veteran’s debts/overpayments.  Checks sent to the VA are being held until they are no longer negotiable.  Schools are finding it necessary to track the check, stop payment and issue another check.  Often the cycle is repeated.  Even when the checks are cashed the debt is being charged to the school rather than reconciling the students account with the returned funds.
  • Many students who access their education benefits are placed at a financial disadvantage because of DVA’s policy to count class enrollment sessions versus term enrollments periods.  This often results in a reduction of the veterans student monthly entitlements and is contrary to the disbursement of Title IV funds. Recommendation: Consider changing the method of computing all credit hours earned in a standard college term to maximize the GI Bill benefit to the veteran.
  • It is imperative that an efficient communication mechanism be established between schools and the VA.  While schools are not always privileged to the eligibility tier on which payment will be made, there is an expectation that schools will defer tuition and fee payments based on the students’ statement that they are eligible for Chapter 33.
  • Inconsistent guidance to schools among and between RPOs and ELRs continues to be problematic. 
  • Veterans’ Program Administrators, often referred to as Certifying Officials are the people who have the most contact with individuals eligible to train under this newest GI Bill.  They are working untold hours to assist in the administration of this program and to maintain compliance with the rules governing all veterans’ education programs.  It is not business as usual.  The program complexities, counseling, fiscal and reconciliation responsibilities associated with this program have increased the processing time for each claim approximately 300%. Institutions continue to be compensated at the rate of $7 for each student enrolled in most VA educational benefits.  If the educational institution delivers an advance payment check, compensation is increased to the rate of $11 for that student.  These fees have not changed since the inception over 30 years ago; however, several programs have been added on to the school VA veteran's program administrator's responsibility at the institution.  It is time and appropriate for that fee, paid to the college or university, to be increased.  NAVPA recommends $50.00 per student and to eliminate the difference in reporting fee for the certification of advance payments.  Fees should be designated for the office of veterans’ affairs for services, outreach, and professional development. 
  • Customer Relations/Communication continues to be inconsistent and all too often inaccurate, regarding information given to both the students and the schools by the VA Call Center.  Recommendation:  Reinstate the customer service units at each of the RPO’s specifically to work with Veterans Program Administrators.

Improvements to Chapter 33 that NAVPA believes are needed:

  • GI Bills must remain an earned entitlement and not become a “need-based award” – leave other scholarships, grants, etc, out of the equation.
  • Eliminate inequities among rates paid to eligible individuals for attendance at schools of different types – public, private, foreign, graduate, undergraduate, resident or non-resident.
  • Elimination of annual state tuition and fee maximums would improve timing of certification, processing, and payment accuracy.  Recommendation:  (1)Provide tuition and fee payments for the public sector based on the actual cost (i.e. tuition and mandatory fees) as certified by the educational institution. (2)Provide tuition and fee payments for enrollment in the private sector, foreign schools and for out of state/non-residents attending public schools, based on actual cost, as certified by the educational institution; not to exceed the highest cost program in the public sector. That is, establish a “national maximum” (tuition and mandatory fees) allowed for all education and training programs.  For the purpose of updating the National Maximum each year, it is recommended that the effective date of the new rate be October 1 of each academic year.
  • Tie the living stipend to training time for all forms of course delivery and reduce the minimum training time requirement to half-time, rather than more than half-time.  For example, allow 50% of the monthly living stipend for half- time enrollment, 75% for three-quarter- time, and 100% for full-time.  Keep it simple as well as equitable - Use the Montgomery GI Bill payment schedule as a successful model.
  • Develop an Education Benefits Web Portal.  A web portal will provide an efficient mechanism for information exchange with, and access to, education systems by veterans and other stakeholders, such as schools, state approving agencies, etc.  At minimum, provide access to Veterans’ eligibility data on VA-ONCE to verify benefits remaining, eligibility tier, overpayments, etc.
  • Correct the rule that makes it impossible for a reserve component member eligible at less than the 100% tier of Chapter 33, to combine federal Tuition Assistance (first pay) and Ch 33 (second pay) in any way that would cover all their charges.  This disadvantage also applies to ROTC scholarship recipients.
  • Clarify Non-duplication of a Federal program.  DVA advisories concerning which programs would duplicate federal benefits appears to conflict with current laws. A brief summary of  CFR 21.7143 (c) provides that; (1) payment of educational assistance is prohibited for a unit course or courses which are being paid for entirely or partly by the armed forces during any periods he or she is on active duty;  (2) payment of educational assistance is prohibited for a unit course or courses which are being paid for  entirely or partly by the Department of Health and Human Services  during any period that he or she is on active duty with the Public Health Service or (3)for a unit course or courses being paid for entirely or partly by the United stated under the Government Employees Training Act.   
  • NAVPA members fully support legislation which would expand the student work study program.  Allow veterans and other eligible persons the opportunity to work in the college/university veterans’ affairs office and/or administrative or academic departments at the degree granting institution of higher learning in which the student is pursuing their academic credentials.  Additionally, allow them to take advantage of this programs while enrolled at a minimum of ½ time student status, especially critical for summer sessions and other non-standard length enrollment periods.  Many veterans have not graduated when their MGIB entitlement has expired after having reached its 36th month. These veterans are still in school; still have some time remaining relative to the delimiting date, yet have no VA educational benefit to help them through the remaining few months of school.  We recommend that the VA Work-study program not be limited to 36 months, rather be made available to them as long as they have not reached their delimiting date.
  • Eliminate overpayments - To establish an overpayment puts unnecessary burden on the student and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the effort to recover the overpayment.  We are suggesting that an individual has 36 months of entitlement under a single program and that an overpayment should not exist until the eligible individual has used 36 months. Overpayments created by the eligible individual as a result of a reduction or termination of enrollment should be recovered from entitlement.
  • The percentage or tier of eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most complicating factor in determining eligibility, processing claims and making other financial awards by both the VA and the educational institutions.  NAVPA Recommends elimination of the multiple levels of eligibility as it relates to required active duty service.  The level of benefit should be reduce to two levels,  one level for a cumulative period of active duty of 3 or more years and another for less than 3 years. We suggest that to establish basic eligibility, an otherwise eligible individual must serve on active duty for 181 cumulative days following September 10, 2001, completed the initial obligated period of service and met all other eligibility requirements. 
  • NAVPA encourages the Secretary and Congress to amend Chapter 33 to expand educational and training opportunities such as OJT/Apprenticeships and other viable and previously approved vocational training opportunities.  Many veterans are not interested in attending college, but have the skills necessary to master a trade. Limiting training opportunities (career options), consequently dilutes the readjustment element of the program.
  • Continue to work toward providing equity in benefit and simplicity in rules regarding eligibility, payments and the overall administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Again, thank you for this opportunity to participate in this hearing, to discuss current problems affecting veterans as well as educational institutions, and to recommend solutions on behalf of our nation’s veterans, service members and their dependents, and the National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators.

Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my statement.  I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of Subcommittee may have.