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California Jobs Challenge (CAJC) scholar Nicholas Castro, 19, of Mission Viejo, Calif., speaks with a Cypress College staff member while getting his financial aid paperwork in place during his first visit to the college in Southern California in August.
California Jobs Challenge (CAJC) scholar Nicholas Castro, 19, of Mission Viejo, Calif., speaks with a Cypress College staff member while getting his financial aid paperwork in place during his first visit to the college in Southern California in August. (Crystal Housman/U.S. Air National Guard)

This story is part of a Stars and Stripes special report on what's ahead for the U.S. military as a new decade begins. See all the stories here.

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs implemented changes Dec. 1 to its process for calculating student veterans’ housing allowances — a move that sets up 80,000 GI Bill recipients to get different amounts in the new semester than they did last year.

Republicans and Democrats said the changes — put in place over a year later than was mandated by Congress — were successfully implemented at the beginning of December. However, leaders from both parties worry that students will be caught off guard by the new amounts as the spring semester begins this month. Adding to the concern: About 21,000 veterans will see smaller checks.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, complimented the VA on the rollout of the changes in December. However, Roe’s office said he sought more answers about how the agency would help those veterans who would be surprised to receive less money.

“I’m concerned that despite the VA’s best efforts, some students will be surprised when they see an unexpected decrease in payment,” Roe said.

In a statement before the new year, Roe encouraged student veterans to read up on the changes and be prepared for the impact.

The change was required of the VA by the Forever GI Bill, a major overhaul of veterans’ education benefits that Congress passed in 2017. It affects veterans who take classes at satellite or branch campuses.

For those veterans, their monthly allowances — for housing, utilities and food — will be based on the cost of living in the city where they’re taking classes, rather than defaulting to their school’s main campus.

For about 59,000 veterans, the change will result in bigger checks.

But about 21,000 veterans are expected to receive hundreds of dollars less each month. Charmain Bogue, executive director of Education Services at the VA, cited one example while testifying before the VA House committee in November. San Francisco has a housing allowance of $4,300 each month, she said, while Sacramento has $2,500. Under the new calculation, a student attending a Sacramento branch of a San Francisco-based school would receive the lower rate.

Bogue promised the VA would offer a one-time relief payment for students who unexpectedly receive less money at the start of the spring semester. Those payments typically take three months to process, but the agency is working to turn those around within two weeks, she said.

Roe’s office, as well as the office of Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., are looking for details from the VA about relief payments. Their staffs said the lawmakers were concerned about whether the VA is getting the word out about the opportunity for financial help.

Questions also remain about when the VA will retroactively pay student veterans who were shortchanged on their housing allowances in 2018 and 2019. In fall 2018, technology failures resulted in the VA sending out incorrect monthly housing stipends to hundreds of thousands of veterans.

VA officials, speaking to lawmakers in November, said they couldn’t yet offer a definite timeline for when those payments would go out. They acknowledged the checks could be sent this summer.

A separate issue that GI Bill recipients won’t have to worry about this year is a plan, offered up by the Defense Department in 2019, that would’ve restricted eligibility for service members to transfer their education benefits to their spouses or children. The proposal would’ve blocked troops with more than 16 years of experience from transferring their benefits.

Congress ended 2019 by approving the annual defense bill, which included a measure that prohibits the Defense Department from moving forward with the plan. The new law stops the Pentagon from imposing limits on the transferability of education benefits based on the number of years troops have served.

This year could also see more advocacy from veterans organizations and lawmakers who want the VA to boost protections for GI Bill recipients against for-profit colleges.

In an agreement reached at the end of 2019, the for-profit University of Phoenix agreed to cancel $141 million in student debt and pay $50 million to the Federal Trade Commission because of allegations of deceptive advertising to students, which included targeting veterans for their GI Bill money. Advocacy organizations said the payout represented just a small portion of the debt that borrowers owe.

Along those same lines, efforts failed in Congress at the end of last year to limit the amount of money for-profit colleges could receive from enrolling veterans. Advocates are likely to try again in 2020.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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