Ariz. college may face freeze on veteran enrollments
By Carol Ann Alaimo | The Arizona Daily Star | Published: March 15, 2014
TUCSON, Ariz. — Pima Community College faces a possible freeze on enrolling military veterans after it failed to fix problems with its record-keeping systems for veterans’ aid.
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs has asked the state agency that oversees veterans’ education to determine if the college should be allowed to keep serving such students.
The VA made the request this week after its latest audit showed PCC still isn’t complying with laws aimed at protecting the tax dollars that fund education benefits for veterans.
It’s the second year in a row that’s happened, despite PCC’s promise last year to correct the problem.
“The college dropped the ball. It’s not acceptable,” PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert said in an interview Friday, a few hours after the school held a grand opening for its new Downtown Campus support center for veterans.
About 1,500 veterans attend PCC each semester under VA programs aimed at helping them pay for their educations. Such programs have numerous rules to ensure the money goes for its intended purpose.
For example, federal money is supposed to stop flowing to a veteran who quits school, flunks out or takes classes that aren’t part of an approved course of study.
Last year’s VA audit found 29 violations of such rules in 50 student veteran files auditors examined.
This year, the VA found even more errors — 40 in 45 files tested.
In 16 cases, for example, the college neglected to promptly notify the VA when a student’s status changed.
In 17 cases, PCC failed to record whether veterans had previous education and training that could affect their continued eligibility for benefits.
Such mistakes can be costly for taxpayers.
Last year, for example, the VA paid out $67,000 to PCC veterans who weren’t entitled to it. Some ended up in the federal debt collection system when the VA tried to recover that money.
The Arizona Department of Veterans Services, the approving agency for state schools that enroll veterans, will send an inspector to Tucson shortly, agency spokesman Dave Hampton said Friday.
The inspector could recommend a 60-day freeze on new veteran enrollments while PCC puts fixes in place, Hampton said.
If that doesn’t work, the school could face a minimum one-year ban of enrolling veterans, at a time when its overall enrollment already is slumping.
In either case, Hampton said, veterans now enrolled at PCC would be able to stay on to finish their current studies.
Lambert said the college will work closely with the state and the VA to make things right this time.
For example, PCC is poised to add to the staff of the department that handles student veteran files.
“We are going to do better by our veterans,” he said. “We owe them that.