WASHINGTON -- A report of major delays in government processing of enhanced veterans' educational benefits -- a report denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs -- is alarming some campus officials because they believe the report may reflect very real problems.
The backlog story appeared in NextGov (a unit of the well respected National Journal) and quoted a "knowledgeable Congressional source" as saying that the VA "has a backlog of nearly 200,000 education benefits claims from veterans just three weeks before universities and colleges start classes for the fall, and it is unlikely VA can process the applications in time." NextGov then followed with a report about the VA saying that the backlog was smaller -- only 57,000.
VA officials flatly deny that the 200,000 figure was accurate, but many college officials who help veterans on their campuses watch a statistic published every week by the department on the number of "work items pending" in various categories of veterans' benefits. For education, the tally released Monday was 211,251, up from 191,388 the week before. Last year at this time, the number of items pending was 43,522. VA officials note that this category includes a variety of education benefits, not just those associated with the enhanced package that is taking effect right now.
But it seems clear that there is a rapidly growing backlog of education benefits of various types at the VA -- and that has college leaders worried.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill, signed into law just this month, is viewed by many educators and veterans as an important expansion of benefits and is leading to predictions of significant increases in the enrollment of veterans at many institutions. The new benefit gives eligible veterans’ tuition and fees, with the maximum benefit pegged to the highest undergraduate, resident tuition rate in a given state. Veterans also receive a monthly housing allowance and an annual $1,000 stipend for books. And more than 1,100 colleges are are participating in the Yellow Ribbon program, under which private colleges reach a matching agreement with the government to make it more affordable for veterans to attend their institutions.
Keith Wilson, director of the VA’s education service, on Monday described the backlog this way to Inside Higher Ed: He said that the VA has received about 190,000 requests for eligibility determination and has acted on about 140,000 of them. As for actual enrollment and benefits distribution, he said that the VA has received about 25,000 certifications from colleges for students who have enrolled, and has completed action on 9,000 of them. He said that it is taking about 30 days on average to process either part of the process, and that the high figures in the tally of outstanding benefits actions include many other benefits not counted here.
Wilson also noted that housing payments are only provided at the end of a month -- so the funds go out October 1 for veterans' housing costs in September, and so forth. This fact is well known to the college officials who help veterans, many of whom were already expecting to have to help veterans with housing costs in the short term -- but had been hoping that tuition checks would be arriving on time.
The concepts behind the new benefits are wildly popular with educators who work with veterans, who believe the old benefits lagged college costs, and weren't delivering the promise of the original GI Bill. But there is also a concern that the government's track record with bringing big new programs to full operation in a short period -- as is being attempted here -- has not been inspiring.
Adding to the concern on campuses: Many colleges have been telling veterans that they will not let the delays prevent them from enrolling. And while they are proud of making that pledge, college educators were counting on delays being only modest.
The director of veterans programs at a large Midwestern university, who asked not to be identified because he needs to work with the VA, said he is expecting at least 60 students to enroll using the new benefits, and has received tuition payments for a small minority of them -- even as classes start next week.
Of particular concern, he said, is that there are delays for some students in receiving a certificate of eligibility, which should be the first thing one receives after applying. When that certificate arrives, both the student and the college can feel confident that the money is coming -- and the problem is dealing with the delay. But absent that certificate, there is a chance some veterans being enrolled now may turn out not to be eligible.
"I fear we'll have some regretful conversations in November when some will have to live with not getting money," said this director. "We'll do what we can."
Based on what he sees among his students and what he hears from colleagues, this official said that the report of a major backlog was quite believable.
Lorene Cox, veterans benefits coordinator at Mississippi State University, said she didn't have any idea what the backlog was like nationally. But on Monday, as classes started, she said she was expecting to enroll 25 to 35 students under the new program -- but that checks had arrived for only 5 or 6. She said she did notice that the students whose tuition had been paid were among the first to apply. With more inquiries coming in about enrolling, she said she was "hopeful" that more tuition checks would arrive soon.
Jack Mordente, director of veterans affairs at Southern Connecticut State University, said that he is worried, but not surprised, by the delays at his campus and nationally. "I knew this was coming," he said. "This is always a very busy time for the VA, but you add to it the new GI Bill, and fact that the VA had to hire more adjudicators, obviously they are still inundated."
Southern Connecticut will not block veterans from enrolling if their tuition checks haven't arrived. So far, he has about 80 students saying that they will enroll, using the veterans benefits, while only another 5 have had their checks arrive. Mordente said that he made the unpopular suggestion that the government wait until January to start the program, because it was so unlikely everything would be ready. "But this is political. Washington wants to say 'Look what we did for our vets,' " he said. "But what's worse? The flak for not doing it until January or the flak from more delays in September?"
Mordente said that his university is committed to helping the veterans, but that this could get expensive if checks don't arrive.
"The question is how late are those checks going to be and at this point we don't know," he said.