WASHINGTON -- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials assured members of Congress Thursday that when it comes to implementing the mammoth new Post-9/11 GI Bill, they are on schedule.
The prepared testimony given at the Congressional hearing, held by the House of Representatives Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, focused largely on timetables and the status of information technology improvements needed to implement the bill, which goes into effect in August. Subcommittee members also raised questions, however, about dramatic disparities in the maximum amount of veterans' tuition and fees payable under the GI Bill in each state.
The maximum amounts are pegged to the highest undergraduate public tuition and fee rates in each state, and some of the preliminary figures posted by the VA are startlingly high, leading the subcommittee's ranking member, John Boozman (R-Ark.), to cry foul. "I truly am surprised by some of the numbers," he said in his opening remarks, referencing several cases in which the maximum amount of fees payable -- fees, not counting tuition -- exceeds $10,000. "If these numbers hold true, we need to have a conversation with the higher education industry. ... We must also insist that schools do everything they can to keep the costs down."
When asked to address the disparity in rates across states, Keith M. Wilson, director of the VA's Office of Education Service, responded, “I can address the tuition and fee structure that we’re required to implement under the Post-9/11 GI Bill," explaining that the posted figures are based on statutory requirements.
“They don’t represent averages. ... They simply represent the situation in each state that is the highest in-state undergraduate public tuition in that state. That’s the only thing those numbers represent.”
High-costing, outlier programs -- in aviation or pharmacy, for instance -- appear to have boosted the maximum amounts payable to veterans in some states way above average costs for attending flagship universities. The implications are primarily for veterans attending private colleges, who can apply the value of their states' maximum tuition and fee rates, respectively, to their private college tuition and fee bills. (Under the new GI Bill, the tuition and fee calculations are done separately.)
Above that maximum, private colleges can enter into a matching program with the federal government to waive any remaining balance. In some states, however, there won't be a balance, or at least not much of one. A report from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) distributed at the hearing notes that, using the preliminary figures posted, "A veteran attending a private college in Texas will have their entire tuition paid no matter where they enroll, including the most expensive private school in Texas[,] Southern Methodist University (SMU), costing upwards of $33,170/yr. However, a veteran attending Hendrix College in Arkansas, which costs marginally less, $26,080/yr., will only receive about $5,000 in tuition and fees and will owe upwards $21,000/yr."
"Even more illustrative examples can be found by examining students who attend online programs like the University of Phoenix," the document continues. "If a veteran is participating in [a] nursing program based out of Arizona they will have their entire tuition and fees covered ($11,550/yr.) while a veteran participating in the same University of Phoenix nursing program based out [of] Florida will be required to pay nearly $4,000 out of pocket, even though the programs cost the same."
Asked by the subcommittee chair, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), whether the administration has a position on IAVA's call for a national tuition and fee cap of $13,000, Wilson said the administration did not have a position.
Subcommittee members also asked several questions about recovering overpayments of benefits, in cases, for instance, when a veteran withdraws or reduces his or her course load. While a system for recovering overpayments is already in place, Wilson pointed out that what's new under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is that payments will be "front-loaded" at the beginning of the semester.
More generally, officials pointed to progress moving at or ahead of schedule, with a robust contingency plan newly finalized and plans to begin accepting applications for certificates of eligibility from veterans by May 1. Stephen W. Warren, VA's acting assistant secretary for information and technology, offered an overview of IT strategies for processing claims and distributing benefits. In time for the August 1 enactment date, the short-term solution will be "an augmented manual process," he explained. “The long-term solution is to put something in place that is a fully automated solution."