Paperwork backlog delays benefits to veterans attending Wichita State

By SUZANNE PEREZ TOBIAS | The Wichita Eagle | Published: November 5, 2018

WICHITA, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — More than 100 student veterans at Wichita State University have not received their GI Bill benefits because of a paperwork backlog caused by understaffing at the university’s Military and Veteran Student Center.

Delayed payments prompted some students to drop courses or withdraw from the university altogether, student leaders said, and they urged WSU to rectify the situation quickly.

A university official said the backlog is “not a matter of negligence,” and that they recently hired additional people to process paperwork.

“We were shorthanded during . . . some employee transition, and it became apparent to us, once we realized what was going on, we had some catching up to do,” said Deanna Carrithers, director of operations in WSU’s Office of Diversity and Community Engagement.

“We have new certifying officials coming on board that will have the adequate training, and . . . we will be more than staffed — beyond what we’re required to do — to ensure that this never occurs again.”

She said the university also can issue advances to students, allowing them to pay for tuition, books and other expenses while they await their benefit checks.

The problem came to public attention last week when the WSU Student Government Association approved a resolution saying delayed benefits have “created a severe financial crisis/hardship for a considerable portion of students.”

Ciaban Peterson, a WSU junior and president of the Student Veterans Organization, co-authored the resolution, which urged the university to dedicate more employees to processing veteran benefits and to explore ways to make the process more efficient.

“The university, I believe, needs to apologize to those students,” said Peterson, a Marine Corps veteran majoring in business.

“We know a lot has to do with the (Department of Veterans Affairs), but the VA can only do so much. . . . This is an ongoing problem, and the university needs to dedicate more people to fix the bottleneck.”

According to the student government resolution, the Department of Veterans Affairs recommends that universities have a “school certifying official” for every 200 student veterans enrolled. Those officials process certification for student veterans so they can receive VA education benefits, including tuition and living expenses.

Wichita State has 913 students who are veterans, active duty military or dependents who could be eligible for education benefits, Carrithers said.

Earlier this semester, the university listed several people as being certified to process veteran benefits, but only one was dedicated to the task, said Peterson, the student veteran. When that person went on emergency leave, student requests piled up and were not submitted as needed, he said.

Kevin Harrison, community engagement coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement, said during a media briefing Thursday that the university is working “to expedite this process” and recently certified three more people to process benefits.

WSU also hired a new director for the Military and Veteran Student Center — retired Lt. Col. Larry Burks, who is “in the process of getting certified” to process veteran benefits, Harrison said.

“We are excited about the new protocols and the new leadership in place, and as a result, we have already seen a significant reduction in the backlog,” he said.

“We take the needs of all students very seriously — veterans included — and we will continue working with our students to resolve all remaining issues to ensure they receive all benefits for which they are eligible.”

Carrithers said WSU also is exploring online tools and other strategies that could make the process of filing and certifying benefits easier for students and the university.

“Even prior to this story, we were thinking about how we could do this better,” she said. “We want to have the best practice nationally happening here at WSU.”

She said any student facing financial hardship because of delayed benefits should contact the Military and Veteran Student Center.

“We don’t want there to be, at any point, someone who drops out of school because of financial reasons,” she said.

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