WASHINGTON -- A veteran in Arizona was resorting to food banks. Others dropped out when they couldn’t pay the rent. A single mother of three children received an eviction notice while pursuing her degree. These are just a few of the stories that college counselors and veterans' support groups heard last semester, as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs struggled to deliver benefits packages to the hordes of students applying for the newly implemented Post-9/11 GI Bill. 
But after admittedly being overwhelmed by a deluge of new veterans seeking benefits, VA officials now say they have -- for the most part -- at least paid veterans their full benefits for the fall semester. The agency processed about $1.5 billion in payments to more than 183,000 veterans in the fall, and there are now fewer than 500 eligible veterans who’ve yet to receive their fall packages, VA officials say.
Struggling with outmoded technology, insufficient staff and a training program that left college counselors confused about how and when to apply for benefits, the VA often took months to provide veterans with the housing and tuition funds to which they were entitled. This spring semester will provide a true test for the VA, which -- after months of public scrutiny and the occasional tongue lashing from Congress  -- is under intense pressure to get it right this time.
For the spring term, the VA has already received 132,000 enrollment certifications from colleges and processed more than 105,000, officials said.
College officials who’ve followed the GI Bill closely say they are optimistic the process will be improved this semester, but there’s no shortage of concern about what some describe as systemic problems with the manner in which benefits are disbursed.
“I think it will go smother than it did. I don’t think it will go as smooth as they’re thinking it will,” said Jennifer Matteson, coordinator for academic certification at Saint Louis University and a board member of the National Association of Veterans Program Administrators.
A letter distributed to the VA’s state directors this month outlines just how smoothly the department is saying the spring will go. The VA has “committed” to paying benefits “no later” than Feb. 1 for any veteran whose college submitted the appropriate materials by Jan. 19. As for materials that come later? Those will be paid at the VA’s “earliest opportunity,” according to Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, secretary of veterans affairs.
While admirable, the deadlines set by the VA illustrate just how out of sync the department still is with some of the colleges it serves, some college officials say. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s campus in Daytona Beach, Fla., for instance, certifying officials who process veterans' paperwork didn’t send students’ enrollment certification information to the VA until after the drop/add period ended Jan. 21. There’s a good reason for that, explains Faith DesLauriers, university director of veterans affairs.
“Any change in enrollment under this GI Bill is going to affect payment,” she said. “Rather than having inaccurate payments and having to monitor and refund or re-bill, we choose to certify [students] when we are absolutely 100 percent [sure of what they’re taking].”
Since the drop/add period is explicitly designed to allow students to change courses or drop them without penalty, it wouldn’t make sense to tell the VA what courses a student is taking before the end of drop/add, DesLauriers said. The trouble is that different institutions across the country have different drop/add periods, so it’s difficult to set a hard and fast deadline -- say, Jan. 19 -- for when materials should be delivered, she said.
“If the enrollment period begins after [Jan.] 19th -- say late February, March or even April -- will those claims be processed as quickly or will they be delayed because they were not submitted by January 19th as well? What is magical about the 12 days between January 19 and February 1,” DesLauriers wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.
VA Rhetoric Irks Some Colleges
As criticism of processing delays mounted in the fall, VA officials and college certification officers who verify a students' enrollment often took turns ascribing blame to one another. More recent communiqués from the VA have stressed that all parties involved in the process play an important role in assuring timely payment.
“Successful implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill is a shared responsibility between the VA, educational institutions and student veterans,” VA officials said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. "VA is reaching out to inform student veterans, university and college administrators, the Department of Defense and Congressional members about our efforts to implement this historic program."
The theme of shared responsibility was also asserted in Shinseki’s Jan. 14 letter to state directors, who were told that as of December the VA was still receiving enrollment certification materials for veterans who began classes in August. The letter noted that “prompt submission of information from schools each term helps avoid delays” in payments. That notion doesn’t sit well with college counselors, who say they’re being unfairly painted as the source of the problem.
“It was pretty annoying to see the VA kind of putting the blame on the schools and suggesting that they weren’t getting the paperwork in on time,” said Jack Mordente, director of veterans affairs at Southern Connecticut State University.
The VA provided data to Inside Higher Ed, however, that suggests a considerable number of enrollment certification forms for the fall semester didn't arrive until the end of the calendar year or after. Between Dec. 1 and Jan. 21, the VA received about 5,170 enrollment certifications for students who enrolled in August, officials said. [Clarified from an earlier version].
Even if there were delays in submitting paperwork, there is still skepticism about whether an agency that instituted mandatory overtime to deal with a backlog was simply waiting around for forms that wouldn't come.
“I don’t understand how anybody could justify saying that if they already had a backlog of hundreds of thousands of files, how sending more could make that go faster,” DesLauriers said. “I do take exception to anyone who would say educational institutions are at fault for the delay.”
Indeed, many argue that the patience and flexibility of colleges prevented large numbers of unpaid veterans from dropping out when their checks didn’t arrive. There have not been widespread reports of colleges kicking out veterans who hadn’t received their tuition payments, and some colleges even arranged to give veterans interest-free loans to cover their living expenses. As the delays mounted, the VA also instituted a program that would provide up to $3,000 in advance payments  to students who hadn’t received checks.
Matteson, of Saint Louis University, said colleges are likely to continue to be flexible when it comes to collecting tuition from veterans whose payments are delayed.
“They’ve earned this benefit and we’re not going to put an additional hardship on them when they’ve already served their country,” she said. “We don’t want to put additional stress on them. We’re pretty confident the VA is going to pay; it’s just a matter of when.”
Derek Blumke, president of Student Veterans of America, said he expects improvements after the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s rocky start.
“I think they are scrambling now,” he said of the VA. “They have been throwing numbers and bodies at the issue, and right now that’s probably the right move.”
The VA has hired an additional 750 employees over the past year to help process benefits, bringing the total number working on education benefits to 1,200. But Larry Lockwood, the University of Iowa’s assistant provost and registrar, said the key to improving the process lies in training the college-level certifying officials -- many of whom know little about veterans benefits -- about the complexities of the new bill.
“Start training the school officials,” he said. “Start setting up training programs. Start meeting with them on a regular basis. Let’s get this thing fixed.”
25 Colleges With the Most Veterans on the Post-9/11 GI Bill
|Institution||Number of Veterans on Post-9/11 GI Bill (as of Dec.9)|
|University of Phoenix Online & Axia College||2,054|
|University of Maryland University College||1,346|
|American Intercontinental University||974|
|Tidewater Community College - Virginia Beach||879|
|Florida State College at Jacksonville||836|
|San Diego Mesa College||754|
|Ashford University (online)||732|
|Old Dominion University||725|
|Lone Star College System||694|
|Austin Community College||646|
|American Public University System (American Military University)||643|
|University of Texas at San Antonio||592|
|San Antonio College||565|
|Colorado Technical University (online campus)||553|
|Central Texas College||546|
|National University (San Diego)||538|
|ECPI College of Technology||536|
|San Diego City College||522|
|Valencia Community College||512|
|Texas State University - San Marcos||494|
|Arizona State University main campus||482|
-Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs