Veterans' Benefits for Spring Semester Face Fewer Delays

March 04, 2010

After a fall semester plagued by delays and backlogged payments, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that it has issued the majority of spring-semester benefits to veterans in college under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The speedier payout has proved a relief for colleges, which had expressed concern that some students might not be able to afford their tuition in the spring if the delays continued. But after hiring hundreds of new workers and reassigning existing employees, the agency was able to catch up.

All benefits have been paid to veterans who submitted their information before January 18, according to the department.

Still, some hurdles remain. The department now must recover the $3,000 advance payments it made to 68,000 veterans who needed financial help while they waited for their benefits in the fall. The money can be paid back either through monthly repayments or through deductions from future benefit payouts. Other money must be recovered as well, including that from colleges that were mistakenly paid twice and from veterans who dropped a class and owe tuition funds to the VA.

Colleges, which struggled with the delays last fall, have noticed the improvement.

"We have gotten payments for spring much more quickly, much more quickly, than we did in the fall—that is absolutely true," said Margaret Baechtold, director of veteran-support services at Indiana University at Bloomington. "I wouldn't say that we have 100 percent of them, but we're probably above 90 percent."

In December, testifying before the Veterans Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Ms. Baechtold said some students were at risk of dropping out because their payments for the fall semester had been delayed. Quicker payments have resolved those problems for the spring, she said on Thursday.

New Challenges

With the benefits backlog cleared, the Veterans Affairs Department faces new issues. Several bills in Congress propose changes in the Post-9/11 GI Bill—changes the department want to put off until after December 2010, when it will begin using a new, automated benefits-payment system.

The proposed changes include allowing veterans to use the benefits for nondegree programs, a step that the VA does not support, said Keith Wilson, the department's education-service director. The change would make paying benefits even more complicated, he said.

"VA is working aggressively on a new payment system to support the existing Post-9/11 GI Bill provisions," he told a subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee last month. "Adding new payment provisions before full deployment of the payment system would severely hamper deployment efforts."

Problems still exist at colleges, too. At Indiana, some students didn't realize that they had to visit campus officials to have their enrollments certified with the VA, Ms. Baechtold said.

Hoping to address such issues, the department announced a two-month advertising campaign to explain how veterans can receive their education benefits. The campaign, which includes advertising in college newspapers and online through social networks like Facebook, is aimed at veterans and college administrators "who need help in understanding the GI Bill and their role in the benefits process," Mr. Wilson said.