Old technology impeding some GI Bill payments
By TOM PHILPOTT SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2009
Amanda Collier started college last August armed with a certificate of eligibility to use Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that her dad, a Coast Guardsman of 22 years, had earned and transferred to her.
Next week Amanda will take final exams for her first semester at the University of Central Oklahoma. But neither she nor the university has received any GI Bill money yet to cover her tuition, housing or other costs.
The missing payments “made the semester a lot more complicated than it should have been,” she said Wednesday. “Usually the first semester is hardest because you’re trying to figure out everything. Having money complications made it a lot more stressful.”
Collier is among an unknown number of Post-9/11 GI Bill users still victimized by computer software at the Department of Veterans Affairs that left VA staff unable to process two categories of claims. These cases simply were set aside to await a software upgrade. Impacted students and schools, it appears, never received a letter to explain why payments were frozen.
This complication hit students whose Post-9/11 GI Bill award levels needed adjusting after the semester began, usually because a student added or dropped a course, as she had done. But it also impacted students who had changed campuses or schools, and therefore created “overlapping terms” which the old GI Bill software couldn’t handle, said Keith Wilson, director of the VA’s education service.
Amanda’s situation was made more stressful because, as a dependent using transferred benefits she was ineligible for the $3,000 lump-sum emergency payment VA officials began to make in early October.
“We don’t have the mechanism for them to apply for that,” Wilson said. The lump sum payments, he explained, had to be made available quickly. VA computers only held data on veterans, to validate eligibility and track payments, and not on dependents.
Susan Collier, Amanda’s mother, said she tried to learn everything she could over the past year about the new GI Bill and transferability so that financing her daughter’s education this fall would be smooth. Her husband applied for benefits as soon as he could and transferred 100 percent of his GI Bill to his daughter.
But when Amanda Collier dropped a course in September, cutting total credit hours from 15 to 12, VA couldn’t process an adjusted benefit award. So she couldn’t be paid her book stipend or her housing allowance to cover dorm costs. Her university couldn’t be paid promised tuition fees.
“The Housing Office at the school threatened us with letters each month that they were going to turn us over to a collection agency,” Susan said. “We called the Housing Office each month and they finally agreed to wait for the money ... until the next month came and still no money.”
To make matters worse, Collier wants to transfer next semester to a smaller school. But the university, Susan said, “will not give her a final transcript because she still owes them money. ... All of this means we are on the hook for over $15,000 since the VA isn’t paying.”
As of Dec. 1, the VA had received 340,000 applications for Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility determinations. Action has been completed on 276,000 of those.
Among the pool of applicants found eligible for benefits, 124,000 have enrolled in school. A total of 104,500 students — and their schools — are receiving Post-9/11 GI bill payments.
VA has issued the $3,000 advance payments to more than 62,000 students. One of VA’s next big challenges will be to recoup the advance payments from students no longer impacted by payment delays.
“We’re setting up the mechanics of how that will be done right now,” Wilson said. “We will notify the student concerning the amount of the advance payment. Then that [amount] will be recouped out of the future housing allowance and book stipend that would have gone to them.”
The overall backlog of GI Bill payments is shrinking, Wilson said.
“We peaked the second week in September, and it has been going down from that point,” he said. Wilson isn’t ready yet to say VA won’t need the advance payment program next semester.
“We will keep it in place as long as necessary,” Wilson said.