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Friday, November 16, 2018

Nation

Veteran students suffer as VA falls more than a month behind in payments


The VA has had issues processing payments to college veteran students this academic year. | Corbin Ayres/The Cougar

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has had issues processing payments to college veteran students this academic year. | Corbin Ayres/The Cougar

A change this year in how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs processes payments to college students who are entitled to the Forever GI Bill benefits has caused delays for those expecting their stipends.

Monthly housing stipends and tuition assistance funds are among those being disbursed late. This has forced veterans to spend their own money or take on debt to pay their educational expenses in the meantime, even though they are legally entitled to those benefits. There has been little communication from the VA.

“We are kind of left playing the waiting game,” said architecture junior Kyle Scallan, a 32-year-old Navy veteran.

Scallan said he has received some of his housing payments but has not received his tuition assistance from the VA, requiring him to take out an emergency deferment loan that’s building up interest while he waits.

Program Director of UH Veteran Services Celina Dugas explained how the VA’s calculations for housing stipends changed this year. Before, it was based on the ZIP code where the student’s university is located. Now, it is based on where they are taking most of their classes physically.

For example, before the change a UH student would receive their housing allowance based on the UH main campus ZIP code, even if they took classes at Sugar Land. Now it would be calculated based on UH Sugar Land’s ZIP code.

The VA has to update ZIP codes for more than 950,000 veteran students for a total of $13.7 billion in aid, causing the delays, Dugas said.

Dugas spoke with a VA official last weekend, and he said workers have mandatory overtime to complete the transition.

For Scallan, this delay means working as much as he can — in addition to his time-intensive architecture major — to have money saved up.

“I’ve got financial aid,” Scallan said. “I can’t imagine the VA students that have an emergency deferment loan. They got no safety net like a loan or scholarship to help them out.”

On the University side, how UH verifies students who should receive GI Bill aid changed from a one- step process to a two-step, Dugas said.

Before, tuition, housing and a book stipend were all paid out at the beginning of a semester after a student filled out the right paperwork, Dugas said. They would be verified by the University and payments would be processed.

Now, housing and book stipends are processed at the start of the semester like before, but tuition isn’t processed until after the Official Reporting Day, the last day to drop a class. Then students are verified for tuition assistance.

Dugas said the VA recommends processing payments with two steps because if a students adds or drops a course after the semester starts, they could have a balance or a debt to pay back to the VA.

Every veteran student at UH has been verified, Dugas said. It’s now just about waiting for the VA to hand out those payments.

Scallan said he has had a hard time reaching the VA for answers during this time, because the numbers he used to call are no longer available.

Only a handful of students who need assistance have come into the UH Veteran Services office asking for financial assistance, Dugas said. The office connects students with resources to help veterans.

“Veterans are interesting,” Dugas said. “They don’t often like having to ask for help.”

Robert M. Worley, director of Education Service with the VA, sent a letter out to students Oct. 10 and said they are 35 days behind on processing first-time applicants and 25 for re-enrollments.

“I shouldn’t have to be counting my blessings,” Scallan said. “I’ve earned these benefits.”

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