With his boyish face and soft tangle of curls, Matt Howard looks like he should have carried a fishing rod though a Norman Rockwell summer. Instead, the 26-year-old Vermonter lugged a gun through two tours in Iraq. Now, what the former Marine really wants is a college diploma. But he and other returning veterans are finding it hard to collect the college benefits they expected when they enlisted in the military.
That expectation was fueled by promises from military recruiters and the soldiers’ own financial commitment. All new recruits are given a one-time, use-it-or-lose-it opportunity to buy into benefits eligibility by paying $100 a month for their first year of service. Any benefits unused 10 years after they leave the military are forever lost, including the $1,200 “kicker.” The almost 30 percent of active duty veterans who bought in didn’t collect their educational benefits over the last decade effectively donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury.
Many veterans who applied under the 1984 Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) say they faced black-hole bureaucracy and college costs that far exceeded benefits.
“I was so disgusted by how hard it was to get my college benefits, I just gave up,” says Howard about his first experience enrolling in the University of Vermont (UVM), a relatively affluent state/private school in picturesque and progressive Burlington. “I volunteered for the Marines, served in Iraq and I appreciate the pat on the back and being called hero, but the military sells itself on money for college; it is the major recruitment tool. This is supposedly why I sold my soul to the devil.”
Because many colleges require payment upfront, and benefit checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) typically arrive months after the semester begins, veterans often have to pony up thousands of dollars in tuition, fees and living expenses to enter school. Already stressed, they may have to choose between going into debt, missing semesters, or exchanging college dreams for low-wage work to support themselves and their families.
“It creates a significant increase in anxiety in a population that is already anxious,” said Jim Dooley, a mental health clinician for the VA in Vermont. “There is also a feeling of betrayal; they are angry enough already.”
Gone are the post-World War II days when MGIB’s predecessor, the GI Bill of Rights, helped educate 7.8 million of the war’s 16 million veterans and provided a “magic carpet to the middle class.” That bill fully covered tuition, books and fees at any public or private U.S. college or job-training program.
Under today’s MGIB, vets who have served more than three years and are enrolled full-time typically collect $1,075 per month for 36 academic months. The $38,700 total covers about 60 percent of the average cost of college, according to the College Board’s estimates.
While reservists don’t need to pay the $1,200 to buy into MGIB, their benefits and the window they have to use them are prorated by time and type of service and are significantly less than for active duty troops. Some 58 percent of reservists and members of the National Guard, even those who have served multiple combat tours, collected no money for education. (See “Getting Vets Their Benefits Back,” February.)
A few lucky veterans attend schools that have learned how to work the VA system and have established policies that give vets a break, allowing them to pay when benefits arrive. But in the end, whether the VA educational benefits system works for an individual depends on the cost of the school, the vet’s own economic resources and determination, how knowledgeable and helpful the school is, and luck.
Financial Catch 22
Most schools, however, borrow a page from the military by building in a Catch 22: No matter when the vet notifies the VA, the agency won’t process MGIB paperwork until the vet’s school submits a certificate of enrollment. Although the VA accepts the certificates 3 to 4 months before school starts, most schools won’t certify students until they actually begin classes. Last fall, the VA took an average of 16 weeks to process paperwork, and they now average between 8 to 12 weeks. Vets are lucky to get fall tuition payments by Thanksgiving.
“By far, the majority of schools are not certifying before school actually starts,” says one state VA official. Another, John V., a senior VA claims examiner in the regional office in Buffalo, puts the figure at “about half.” (Both VA officials asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to media.)
UVM says that it submits the certificate of enrollment 30 days before classes start, which still “guarantees that VA payments will be months late,” says Marie Johnson, UVM’s associate director for customer service for student financial services.
“I’m stressing out because I can’t survive without that check,” says Drew Cameron, who served eight months in Iraq. Now a forestry major at UVM, Cameron enrolled in the Army in hopes of getting a college education. “Every single beginning of school year for six semesters there is this huge lag,” he says of his experiences both at Community College of Vermont where he first enrolled and of UVM where he transferred. “I submit my paperwork to the VA on time, but don’t get the check until November.”
UVM gives its 77 vets a break by requiring them to pay only half the tuition up-front every semester, says Johnson, and the rest in three payments. But that means a full-time, in-state student, living off campus will have to find $2,500 not just once, but at the start of every academic year. “Maybe they should take out a loan,” Johnson suggests.
How willing schools are to let vets start classes before paying “depends how much they got burned by vets in the past.” says the VA’s John V.
The risk is that because MGIB checks are made out directly to students, they can attend classes, drop out, and leave the school to chase down the debt and struggle with the paperwork.
The risk is that because MGIB checks are made out to students, not to the college or university, vets could attend classes, drop out, and the school would have to chase down the debt.
Southern Connecticut State University certifies some 95 percent of its 400 mostly MGIB vets before classes start, says Jack Mordente, full-time director of Veterans Affairs. “I can’t remember the last time we got stiffed, but if we get one a semester that’s a lot.”
Johnson also cannot recall when UVM was “left holding the bag” for a vet, but the school puts a block on student records until vets pay. Her hands are tied, she says, by the need to protect the university from the risk that a vet, “understandably,” will use a VA check intended for tuition, to meet such unexpected needs as “a broken car or a sick family member.” On occasion her office has suggested to vets that they delay school and work until they save enough to cover the gap.
“Other schools are all over the map,” says Johnson. “If they have deeper pockets they can be more flexible.”
But the system even breaks down when full-tuition funding goes directly to the school as it does for disabled vets. Mike Brennan, who is working toward a Masters in social work, says it took weeks of prodding to get UVM to fax his paperwork to the VA so that he could get the stipend owed to disabled vets. But “at least I was able to start classes on time,” he says. Howard, who gave up on collecting under MGIB, eventually qualified for disability benefits and plans to continue his education.
Some institutions, despite limited resources, trust the vets, adjust the rules, and provide hands-on counselors. Most of the schools in the City University of New York (CUNY) system certify students online well before classes begin, says Chris Rosa, in the CUNY office of student affairs.
Alexandru Ivan left the Army in December 2006 after two tours in Iraq. By March he was attending a two-year business administration program at LaGuardia College. Tuition at this CUNY branch is $1,500 a semester, so Ivan has something left over for fees and books, and, at least for now, can supplement living expenses with savings.
“If not for Montgomery, I would not have gone to college,” says the 24-year old vet. “I just couldn’t have paid for it out of my own pocket.”
When Ivan’s VA check was late this spring, “We let him start anyway,” says Stanley Rumph, LaGuardia Community College veterans coordinator. “We have the wherewithal, and we take the risk.” Rumph says that vets can to go to class even if the school has to wait until the end of the semester for the VA to pay up. “And we have never lost money because of it,” he adds.
LaGaurdia often checks the box on the VA form requesting a two-month advance payment. It goes to the bursar’s office where the student picks it up and signs it over to the school.
“Any school can do that,” says Rumph, “The money will come in and these guys are entitled to it.” UVM says they were not aware of that option.
While the delays are an irritation to more affluent students, those most in need cannot bridge the financial gap.
“UVM and the VA, they are equally culpable,” says Barry (not his real name). The 28-year-old Vermonter went with his National Guard unit to Iraq in 2004 when he was in his sophomore year at UVM. When he returned two years later after driving Humvees on IED-strewn roads around Baghdad, what he needed most was to put his life back on track.
Despite a good academic record, he says UVM refused him entry for the spring ‘07 semester. “UVM told me they hadn’t sent in the certificate of enrollment paperwork to the VA, so I couldn’t get the benefits in time for the semester. When I asked, they said they don’t know how that happened and there was no making it right.”
Barry “was never registered,” UVM registrar Keith Williams says, so he couldn’t be certified.
Sympathetic to his plight, Barry’s professor and academic advisor had let him attend classes during the weeks of limbo, hoping that the bureaucratic logjam would break. “I felt helpless,” says Barry’s professor. “He wasn’t a wandering soul; he was very directed and on-track to do something positive not only for himself but for society, in a productive health science career – a field where we need more people. But he hit road blocks.”
“I got angry enough so that I called [Sen. Bernie] Sanders (I‑Vt.),” Barry says, “and his office had the problem ironed out in a week, but it was too late to enroll for the spring semester.” Sanders office confirmed that it had intervened with the VA.
While only the most sanguine expect the vast VA bureaucracy to bend to individual needs, LaGuardia and Southern Connecticut State show that schools can be responsive and flexible. “We clear vets on the GI bill for classes with a notice saying that money will be coming,” says Joe Bello, CUNY’s veterans office coordination. “It would be a shame if they had to wait a whole semester just because [the VA regional office in] Buffalo failed them.”
That is what Barry is doing. “I lost two years in the service and now I am losing another half year,” he says, adding that he hopes to enroll in the fall.
For now, he is unemployed and his mother is worried. “His life was derailed, he was shot at, his friend was killed, and when he got back, he couldn’t continue school. He doesn’t need more stress, he needs the structure of college. I can’t believe that UVM wouldn’t let him go to school. Why don’t they give families a break?”
Education: the biggest draw
Vets are troubled not only by when they get their benefits but also by the amount. “They told me I would get all this money for college under the Montgomery bill,” says Howard, “but somehow I was so naïve that I didn’t know it wasn’t enough to cover school. They were very convincing.”
With 62 percent of surveyed youth telling a Department of Defense (DoD)-sponsored poll that the war on terrorism made them less likely to enlist, military recruiters are hard-pressed to fill quotas. “Educational benefits are a major inducement for many individuals,” according to the DoD, “and typically are the reason for enlisting cited by the largest percentage of new recruits.”
While a careful read of recruitment material provides an accurate picture of what vets can expect, a cursory glance at the Army Web site dangles a level of benefits few will reach. “Depending on how long you enlist with the Army and the job you choose, you can get up to $72,900 to help pay for college,” the Web site promises. “All you have to do is give $100 a month during your first year of service.”
Most vets, however, end up with $38,700 for 36 academic months. The small percent who fail to sign up for the $1,200 “kicker” get no educational benefits at all. “At in-processing before basic training,” explains Rob Timmons of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association, “they announce you can choose to have $100 taken out of your paycheck every month for the next year. For some, it’s no big deal. But a lot of the disenfranchised who have never even seen $1,200 before in their lives don’t sign up.” By missing that one-time opportunity, soldiers forever lose their eligibility to get educational benefits under Montgomery.
“I had one gentleman who came to my office thinking he had benefits, but hadn’t bought in,” Bello says. “These kids joined at 17, 18 or 19, and they didn’t know or have the foresight.” A bill introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D‑Va.) proposes eliminating the $1,200 kicker and fully funding college.
“At least half of LaGuardia’s 113 vets didn’t even know they qualified for benefits” when they showed up at his office, says Bello. “I blame the DoD and by extension the VA.
Frustrated by the VA bureaucracy, many vets turn to college administrators who have to tack veterans’ concerns and navigating the VA on to myriad other duties.
That seems to be the case at UVM. Williams acknowledged that the VA’s time lags combined with the administration’s lack of attention to vets’ special circumstances creates “a perfect formula for frustration. But we are going to change that,” he says, pledging to file earlier using quicker on-line options and give vets more personal attention.
Meanwhile, thousands more war-weary vets returning home are in danger of slipping through MGIB’s cracks.
“It’s an extremely stressful situation for a newly returned vet,” says Howard. “The check is late, the university is breathing down his throat. This is the first dealing with VA that most vets have, and when they come up against shit like this, it discourages them from claiming other benefits, including medical disability, treatments, etc.”