Michael Dakduk, Executive Director, Student Veterans of America
Chairman Stutzman, and Ranking Member Braley,
Thank you for giving Student Veterans of America the opportunity to comment on the Transition Assistance Program and the VetSuccess on Campus Program. These two programs are both essential parts of the transition from the military to civilian life, and it is essential that they be continually assessed by the Congress to ensure that they are meeting the needs of our nation's veterans.
Transition Assistance Program
We have enjoyed working with the Departments of Labor, VA, and Defense in overhauling TAP, and are looking forward to seeing the final product of the new version as it is rolled out in the coming months. As we have emphasized to all of the stakeholders, we feel strongly that education assessment and benefits awareness be critical components of the new TAP Program. It is not enough to simply tell a veteran what benefits are available. If they express interest in higher education, why not sign them up on the spot? The timeline for the expiration of their benefits begins as soon as they are discharged regardless of whether or not they sign up, so for the vast majority of veterans there is no hesitancy to enroll in the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
It is essential that TAP be geographically linked to where a veteran is going, not where they are being discharged from. Most TAP programs only talk about local VA and DOL resources, but there is no one-on-one counseling as to what will be available when they return home, or what they are interested in when they get there. It is essential that the resources in the area provide personal contact information to the veteran who is going there, and they should also have the veteran's information so they can contact him or her when they get there. We are under the impression that this will be a part of the new TAP Program, and we hope that the Congress will continue to require it.
We strongly believe that education should become part of a service member's career long before TAP, and we hope that DOD will continue to explore opportunities for service members, especially junior enlisted and NCOs, to have the opportunity to earn higher education credits prior to making the decision to transition. However, we do recognize that with the high operational tempo our military is currently facing, it will be some time before the same kind of education opportunities that our officers can take advantage of are made available to the enlisted force. That does not mean, however, that our enlisted force is not college material, and we hope that this committee as well as the HASC will encourage DOD to explore these options for all service members so as to dramatically reduce the amount of time a service member must spend in college following discharge before taking on more responsibility in the civilian workforce.
In the meantime, we believe that TAP should begin as soon as possible for all service members, and that over the course of the year before someone transitions, they should be able to take advantage of these resources more than once. This is especially true for those who will be entering higher education following discharge. The college application process must begin at least 6 months before discharge, with the service member preparing for and taking the SATs or other required exams, etc. Therefore, it is essential that TAP offer some kind of tangible education component that allows service members to take the time to prepare for these exams if they need, as well as having the resources to teach them on base.
We hope that this will dramatically increase the number of veterans going directly from their discharge facility to a college campus, where they can be part of a larger academic conversation in a supportive environment, thus more effectively acclimating them to the civilian world.
VetSuccess on Campus Program
The VetSuccess on Campus Program is one that SVA is very supportive of, and hopes that the Congress will continue to fund and expand it. One of the most important parts of this is a full or part-time VA benefits counselor at the participating university that can speak comprehensively about what is available to student veterans. This is important because many universities are not able to afford full-time veteran coordinators, and some do not even have full time certifying officials.
It is for this reason that we feel that the VetSuccess on Campus Program is so important. We know that in these tough economic times, many schools are struggling to maintain highly qualified support staff. Without further requirements from the VA, some schools are reducing their veteran support staff down to the one required person to handle growing student veteran populations, and this is leaving many questions unanswered and likely contributes to veterans dropping out of school and feeling unwelcome. The more that VA-trained and accountable personnel can be interacting daily with student veterans, the more likely these men and women are to finish school and continue succeeding.
We hope that the Congress will continue to work with the VA to place these centers where they are most needed around the country. We would very much like to read of the successes and challenges of this program at each of the 9 pilot locations funded thus far, and we hope that this honorable subcommittee will request and then publish statistics and anecdotal best-practices so that other schools may learn. Ultimately, we feel that this program is the best way for the VA to see firsthand what we have known for years: not all schools are ready for such a large increase in their veteran populations. In order to enhance this readiness, the VA and the Congress must step in to provide resources to schools while at the same time holding schools accountable for their student veteran's performance. VetSuccess on Campus is one such way that the VA can do that, especially at a time when many schools are cutting their budgets.
SVA is very interested in continuing to work with the VA to offer input as to where these sites should be located in the future. It is important that proper metrics are used to determine what size of a population is required to justify this kind of presence. Addition~lly, we hope that in placing these centers on campus, the VA will be able to offer some kind of guidance, if not outright requirements, for how much staff is needed to service each size of student veteran population. It is unthinkable that ten years into these wars, some schools are still only funding a part-time employee to serve hundreds if not thousands of student veterans with no repercussions. The VetSuccess on Campus program offers a perfect medium to assess these needs and offer more concrete guidance to schools. We look forward to working with this Committee and the VA on this issue.
Finally, we would be remiss if we did once again mention the fact that there is no Congressional or regulatory requirement for the VA to track the graduation rates ofthe Post 9/11 GI Bill. At this time, the VA measures only consumption: how many veterans are using the Post 9/11 GI Bill, and how much it is costing. There is no requirement or mechanism for the VA to tell the Congress, schools, or the American people how well their tax dollars are being spent, and this is unacceptable. There must be a way for the VA and the Department of Education to reconcile their records to show what degrees have been paid for, in-full or in-part, by the Post 9/11 GI Bill. This is essential to determine how well our veterans are being supported, performing academically, and ultimately if this is money that has been well-spent. We hope that this honorable committee will agree with us and take steps to find out this important information.
These two programs are essential for the proper and healthy transition of our nation's heroes from the uniform to the classroom and beyond. TAP is currently receiving an overhaul, and we hope that it will reflect the reality that higher education is almost universally required for well-paying jobs in this economy, and thus encourages veterans to use their hard-earned benefits. VetSuccess on Campus represents a fantastic opportunity for the VA to show other schools what veteran's support should look like, and we hope that these lessons will be documented and publically available to learn from. We also hope that the Congress will continue to fund this program so that highly-trained and accountable persons are helping our next generation of leaders succeed at as many colleges and universities as possible.
Very Respectfully Submitted.