It’s a new day in Washington, D.C. President Joe Biden is getting settled into the White House, a split Congress has compromised on how it will share power, and Denis McDonough has been confirmed as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As a former White House chief of staff, McDonough may be the most politically savvy VA secretary ever. Consequently we hope that he will use his ample experience and the administration’s momentum to fix two lagging concerns.
First, we hope that policymakers will work together to defend veterans’ earned benefits and protect their college options.
A week ago Stars and Stripes featured a guest column opining about the need to “rein in” proprietary universities. It was a tired litany of dismissed complaints that refuses to acknowledge that veterans prefer the student-focused, flexible schedules, mostly online instruction, and military-friendly credit policies that are a hallmark of proprietary universities.
The Centurion Military Alliance (Hall is co-founder and board president, Marks is an adviser) was founded in 2013 to help service members successfully leave the military through educational attainment, vocational proficiency and financial security. So, while predatory institutions deserve to face the full consequences of the law, we cannot let their wrongdoing stop the good institutions from fulfilling their mission of educating nontraditional students. Our experience is that veterans are well-equipped to choose the school that works best for them; it is the results that matter, not if the school is a traditional university, community college or proprietary university. Just as veterans have the freedom to invest VA home loans on the house that works best for them, the same is true regarding education.
Adversaries of proprietary universities mischaracterize the 90/10 Rule as a “loophole” — it is not. Their plan would mistakenly equate veterans’ earned benefits with need-based entitlements. But readers of Stars and Stripes know the immense difference: Veterans put themselves in harm’s way and many join the military because of benefits like scholarship opportunities. Policymakers would degrade the GI Bill and other earned educational benefits by likening them to Pell Grants and Stafford Loans.
Second, we hope that the VA will improve the Transition Assistance Program.
TAP was founded in 1991 to “provide information, tools, and training to ensure service members, and their spouses, are prepared for the next step in civilian life.” As well-intentioned as TAP is, it is still a contracted service that is extraneous to the Pentagon’s central mission of protecting and defending U.S. national security interests. Organizations like CMA exist because TAP alone has been unable to sufficiently serve the 200,000 men and women who annually depart military service. But TAP can improve and here is how:
Enforce participation — Many junior and senior service members can now opt-out of TAP. It’s their choice. By opting out, servicemembers are not exposed to TAP’s resources and reach into finance, education and vocational matters — essential tools in transition. DOD should eliminate the option for the servicemember to withdraw from TAP.
Provide flexibility — Presently TAP is a static program that cannot be modified to reflect different service members’ positions or even local economies (or future retirement location economies). It must evolve.
Set a day one prerogative — The best way for the military to recruit future soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is to take care of the present soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Since many service members will depart service after an initial commitment or retire from the military after a career and start a second career, the DOD must begin to introduce the counseling and resources for future vocation at the start of military service.
Improve the DOD-to-VA handoff — The gap between the Department of Defense and the VA is as broad as the Potomac River that separates them. DOD and VA have differing operational directives. The DOD must protect readiness, which suppresses its motivation to help the VA begin caring for service members as they separate. The gap must be closed.
Finally, because TAP cannot handle the deluge of retiring service members on its own, Congress and the president should increase the grants available to successful Veteran Service Organizations, nonprofits, and state and local government programs built to help veterans transition.
The Centurion Military Alliance has working diligently for eight years to help service members successfully transition out of the military, find their next task and purpose, and bring awareness to efforts working against the well-being of our veterans. To that end, we look forward to collaborating with President Biden, Secretary McDonough and congressional leaders.
Steven Hall is a retired Air Force master sergeant and is co-founder and board president of the Centurion Military Alliance. James “Spider” Marks is a retired Army major general and an adviser to the Centurion Military Alliance.