Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Here to There: Tips and Tricks for the Student Veteran

For many student veterans across the country, the first semester under the Post 9/11 GI Bill is in the books. Some of the smarter folks opted to stay with the old Chapter 30 until the new bill, Chapter 33, was fully worked out. Others chose to put their faith into the VA and went with the Post 9/11 GI Bill, much to the chagrin of bill collectors and landlords. It is not clear what the VA has learned since the Great GI Bill Kerfuffle of 2009, but it is evident that problems will continue into the new year. Its fully automated system won't be in place until December 2010, so for the next year the crush of new applicants will have to be processed by a team of monkeys pounding on the keyboard of a Commodore 64. According to the VA, less than 5,000 eligible students are still waiting for payments. Take a stroll through the many comments left on the Post 9/11 GI Bill Facebook page and it might give you a reason not to believe such an estimate. The comments left by students still waiting for tuition payments read like a digital Trail of Tears, with many pleading for help months after submitting their paperwork. One post from early December challenges Facebook users to amass 10,000 followers by 2010. Perhaps a real goal, like completing 10,000 applications by the end of the fall semester, was too bold a prospect.

Student veterans have suffered at the hands of the VA's negligence this fall, but we've developed a knack for pressing on in less than hospitable environments. With the spring semester approaching, there will be many new veterans going to class for the first time. Just like beginning a military career, starting college can be a bit daunting. This spring will be my fifth semester in school, and along the way I've learned the ropes of not only the VA system, but how to successfully get along in the classroom. This week I have prepared a list of pointers useful for a new student facing college life with the VA for the first time. After the New Year, I'll be back with the human side of school and how to best adapt to the peculiar nature of school post enlistment.

***

Back to School, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Wrapped Myself In Red Tape

Know Their Role

On every campus, there is a certifying official that works in the VA system. While a counselor helps you select courses, a certifying official ensures those classes will be paid for by the VA. Only courses in your chosen degree plan will go on the VA's tab; anything extra comes out of your pocket. If there is a hangup in the application and certification process, there are only two reasons why: the VA is using your paperwork to keep their furnace going, or your school official has dropped the ball. Save their number in your phone and hassle them until they send everything on their end. Unlike professors, you cannot choose your certifying officials. Mine aren't the greatest, but it's always a good idea to visit their office so you can double check your classes and make sure everything is set for the next semester. You don't want to be stuck with the bill, as many veterans found out this year. Which leads to the next point...

Choose Wisely

Whether you're on Chapter 30 or Chapter 33, you have 36 months of eligibility (36 months to attend classes, not three years of school). Going full time, you can squeak out a degree in four years if you waste as little time as possible. Avoid the temptation to choose courses pertinent to your degree when you start school. Almost everyone changes their degree at least once, and you don't want to be stuck with useless credits and diminishing months of eligibility. Start out with basic courses that have to be taken to fulfill any degree plan. Good places to start: English I and II, US History and beginning science courses. Consult with your school counselor to nail down what classes satisfy the basics that align with your chosen major, then go back to your certifying official to double check your schedule to make sure all your classes will be certified.

Start Small

Like many other student veterans, I began my collegiate effort at my local community college. Straight out of the Army, no university would take an unproven goofball with no SAT score and a high school GPA hovering between 1.5 and 2. Most universities have a credit threshold where they consider a student for enrollment just by looking at college level work, not SATs or high school GPA. Not only is community college a surefire way into a university, but it's a place to once again familiarize yourself with the classroom and get a feel for homework, professors and the climate of college level work before moving on to a traditional four year institution. It's a great confidence builder in what seemed like an indomitable place when you were enlisted. While I was deployed and dreaming about going to school, the university in my fantasy was a baffling obelisk of hardship where only the most cunning would succeed. Now I'm holding a 3.8 transferable GPA and yawn in the general direction of essays. A few semesters in community college will help tear down the notion that college is an overly difficult experience, and if you're using Chapter 30, it's more money in your pocket. But remember, you cannot stay there forever.

Know The Endgame

I'm going to school at Austin Community College and I'm going to transfer to St. Edward's University to get a degree in global studies. As I mentioned above, you have to take classes that apply to your degree plan. ACC does not have a degree plan for global studies and I've taken just about every basic course offered, so I have to moonlight as a liberal arts general education major to get my classes certified by the VA. If you start in community college, figure out what university you want to attend and get a transfer guide to make sure every credit will transfer over with no fuss. If you slip up and decide to change schools or majors, you will have a difficult time getting everything to transfer neatly. For example, I took an introductory speech class to fulfill the international studies (AKA global studies) degree plan at Texas State, but now I'm going to St. Edwards. They require public speaking, so now I have to retake what is essentially the same class. Since the moonlighting degree I'm on requires just one speech class, I have fulfilled that class permanently. It can't come off my record, and the VA won't pay for my public speaking class because it's not on my current degree plan. I'll be paying out of pocket for that class because I didn't stick to the plan. The GI Bill is generous only when you're on point. You cannot afford to play grab ass and screw around for years trying to decide what to do like your civilian counterparts. Figure out what you want to study before you finish your basics or pay the consequences, either with lost time or a thinner wallet.

Less Hurry Up, More Wait

Hope that your certifying officials are high speed, but prepare for frustrations ahead. Even the most basic of questions directed at your certifying official will likely be met with a perpetual shrugging of the shoulders, though it's not entirely their fault. Call me a cynic, but it would seem the line of communication between the certifying officials and the VA are less than optimal. They don't seem to know a great deal, especially in the midst of an unprecedented program like the Post 9/11 GI Bill. I had two fairly succinct questions for my school certifying official when my application got lost in the sauce:

1. What the hell is going on?

2. Where's my green at?

The answer I got to both questions was a resounding "I don't know," so I had to go straight to the top to get a clear picture. Unfortunately, not everyone has a blog that complains loud enough for VA officials to take notice. Just like playing the ETS game, find other veterans to compare experiences with and see what works and doesn't work. Another veteran at the same school can hold valuable insight into which certifying officials are good, which are not so good, and how to best navigate through the system with the least amount of stress. School is about going to class and making the grades, not fighting a bureaucracy, but that's the nature of the game. Battle buddies make everything easier, and school is no exception.

Slow is Smooth


If the military was the path you took out of high school, it's likely you are not from the privileged class. A part time or full time job is usually a good idea to supplement the housing allowance under Chapter 33. Even though BAH rates changed for the year 2010, housing for student veterans will be calculated using the 2009 amounts. Be sure to check the amount you'll be getting to give yourself a clear financial picture (select E-5 as the pay grade; the amount for an E-5 with dependents will be your housing allowance). If you still need a job but don't think you can handle a full school schedule, find out what your school considers half time, and go a credit over that amount. As long as you take just a credit more than half time, you can get get the full housing allowance without taking a lot of classes (and you will only be charged 3/4 of a month instead of a whole month). For example, half time at my school is six credit hours. If I were to take six hours, I would get several hundred dollars less in my housing allowance than if I took seven. Consult with your certifying official to confirm this, as every school has different rules and ways to figure hours, especially those weirdos on the west coast. This option is definitely slower than taking a full load, but it would be wise to consider when juggling a job and family.



***

I hope these few pointers are enough for fellow veterans to feel a little more prepared to take the plunge into academia. School is the next logical step after an enlistment, so take the considerable opportunity you've been given with the GI Bill (and cross your fingers some clerk in Washington D.C. won't make paper airplanes out of your application). With any luck and these tips in hand, school should be just a tiny bit easier to take on. Just be sure to look before you leap.

Next week: coming to terms with the idea that you're just a little bit different than the 18 year old hipster sitting behind you.

22 comments:

Alex said...

As always, I welcome additional pointers and suggestions from other veterans who have walked school hallways with assault packs on their shoulders.

CI-Roller Dude said...

When I went to college after my active Army days...in 1977, the VA was just as screwed up. Part way through my college days, they got computerized...so things got even more screwed up.
My first semseter I had to sell everything of value I had to pay for gas and food etc, before my first VA check came.
The next place the US Military should invade= Washington DC. Get rid of all the retarded bur-o-crats and politicians that screw up things with half ass programs and laws.
OK, I feel better now. But the system is: "200 years of crap unchanged by progress"

Alex said...

CI,

I originally started this post as a three part series, starting with tips for the VA to improve the communications gap between bureaucrats and students. But the VA knows what they should be doing, they're just unwilling or unable to do it. 200 years and counting!

Anthony said...

BOHICA seems to be the best advice I can give any fellow Veterans. My recent update to my Post-9/11 GI Bill Saga blog shows illustrates just how FUBAR things are on my end. I still know veterans that have not seen a single nickel; they are far worse off than I am.

13 Stoploss said...

Alex,

I've learned a bit about those certifying officials in my area, and I think they may be similar across the country. The biggest thing for vet students to keep in mind is that they are not VA employees, but employees of the school. Secondly, most are not even veterans themselves. Lastly, they're usually the schmuck that got roped into the job from some other admin or clerical position. So, like us, they have to go through a learning process. Unfortunately for them and us, learning the VA process is a nightmare, especially when a new system is unearthed.

I've been fortunate in both my schools to have squared away certifying officials. At the CC, my official was a veteran student worker who ended up working more than he was student'ing. Like most, he's slow, but he does a great job and he knows the ins and outs of the process. At the University, it's a different story. They're easy to work with, easy to talk to, but they just don't have access to to the information we usually want. If you think of them as just middlemen, then you'll be better off knowing why things don't run so smoothly.

The question then is whether or not it would be a good idea for a VA case worker to be staffed at the schools? Give them a workspace and keep them off the school's bankroll, but there as a service to veterans. Would that be more headache or a solution? Is it feasible, on the VA's part, to staff one individual at each CC and University in every VA region?

As always, good write-up. However, I'd like to see why you think Ch. 30 is more advantageous than Ch. 33, aside from the lateness. On paper, it's a no brainer to me: BAH ($2152) and Tuition>$1301 per month... also, you should mention some info about the necessity of FAFSA. If veterans live on their own, they are no doubt poor as me. Those with families might be worse off. BUT, that means they are also eligible for some pretty nice monies from Uncle Sam in the form of grants and scholarships. I know my situation is different because of children, but I was receiving $600 a semester in Pell Grants at the CC. With the same situation, I'm getting an extra 0 added to that figure, per QUARTER.

Just my .02

Patrick K. said...

Hi, Thanks for the great posts! I have been in the same boat- battling the VA for edu bennies for nearly 5 years! I won't bore you with details of errors and personal battles, but thank god for the internet and other vets!
At our school, we have been talking about the idea of starting a free class at all colleges with a VA department for returning vets, and getting them in their right away. It would be about introducing all new students to anyone or anything that they would need during their pursuit of an education- create support networks, have individuals assist with vet needs or point them in the right direction (edu, medical, employment, basically all the promises we heard for so long!), plus allow some grace time to settle into school before the first check comes in... almost like a bridge or orientation class for vets.
Have you heard of any other programs like this? Are there? All I got when I got out of the AF was a two hour "from blue to gray" briefing, and was sent on my way. I can't imagine having to have gone through this ten or fifteen years ago. I would have given up for sure.

Alex said...

Jason,

I suppose I should've explained that more clearly. Chapter 30 is a better option only if you're in CC and your housing allowance would be really low. Sometimes CC tuition is so cheap that you can recoup the losses of paying tuition up front if you live in a low BAH place (like I do). And if you've almost exhausted 36 months under Chapter 30, you can get 12 months of Chapter 33 on top of that. It all depends on your situation. I'm on Chapter 33 and happy about it.

Also, I don't know anything about financial aid so I didn't include it. Feel free to drop a link if you've mentioned it over at your house!

Patrick,

Alex said...

Jason,

As for the second half of your comment, that would be a great idea. A caseworker directly tied to the VA would take a lot of pressure off the certifying officials to do what they do best: slowly and painfully certify enrollment. They'd be better at answering detailed questions, too.

Patrick,

That'd be a good place to start as well. The closest thing I have heard to that are veteran only classes. An orientation with the certifying officials and maybe someone from the nearest VA regional office to explain how things go would be a great way to introduce students to the VA system and meet other veterans along the way. Entirely doable.

Anonymous said...

Well said.
STILL waiting for my GI BILL $
SIGH...

CI-Roller Dude said...

OH crap, I just had to look here again....and get my blood pressure up...The college in the area I'm a cop has finc aid for those who need it. There's no guidelines for specific classes they have to take and they can even fail a few times and still collect a check--right away!
I think some VETS may also be able to get finca.aid to help. Worth checking.
Don't even start about eh VA hospitals...took me a year to get in after Iraq because my Nat Guard unit didn't know what to do.
OK, done venting. I'll be so happy to collect that retirement pay in a few years...

Anonymous said...

I could go on and on about the VA... I will spare you all and resist the urge. Sucks, cause I work there.

Just a tidbit... IRIS inquiries get a lot of attention - www.iris.va.gov - they have to be answered within 5 days.

The system is flawed, we are just now giving up a DOS-based software system for processing awards... it is only over 40 years old!

If any of you have a compensable disability at 20% or more, Chapt 31 Voc-Rehab is the best deal around. I went to DePaul, all tuition, books fees PAID. Even got a stipend (not as much $$$ as BAH), but still a sweet deal.

DOPES 2 said...

Alex,

Big props to you going the CC route and transferring with a strong gpa. I recommend the same path for anybody that has been out of school for any extended period of time.

As a matter of fact, I was in a similar situation, low gpa, pathetic SAT (I took it right before I Echo Tango Suitcased my ass out of the Army). Went the CC route and was done with my BBA in 4 years.

However, my GI Bill experience was a little different. I had to pay my own tuition first and then get the monthly check from Uncle Sam. (I got out in 1993). So . . . I went to school year-round and kept my full-time load to a minimum my last year and a half to ensure that I used all of the benefit payments.

Anyway, I wish you the best and hope the upcoming semester treats you well. Sorry for the crude pic, I just never changed it from when I was commenting on the housing bubble blogs.

Be cool.

Dennis said...

For what it's worth, here was my experience:

After 5 years enlisted in the Navy, I got out and went to community college in Saratoga, California, starting in 1979. Two years later, I transferred to CalPoly, SLO for an architecture degree. I spent the last dollar of my savings in the military six months before I graduated, the GI Bill paving most of the way to a five year undergrad degree in architecture. After moving to LA in '85, I apprenticed in architectural offices until I passed my licensing exams and with that in hand I enrolled into art school for a graduate degree (MFA), finally racking up $25k in student loan debt, not so bad considering the norm after all.

All of this is to say, hang in there you guys. It'll work out if you fight hard and long enough.

I'm looking forward to your next post. I'm still wrapping my head around the schizoid cultural split between the world of high art creative types and the world that fights for freedom. I resist the idea that this split is real or permanent. I think that the two should become one, that the left takes freedom that they exercise for granted and that the right doesn't understand that transgression is the motor for a modernity that they are defending. I think that critical studies owes too much to Marx and that the idea of creative destruction has been taken far too literally (social justice and revolution et al) where it should be properly understood as a metaphor for personal creative revolt. It is this split that is hurting us nationally and worldwide, and the only real challenge for our time is to find a way for the two halves to fit together.

I'm interested to see if you have any thoughts along this line.

Alex said...

Dennis,

Interesting points, and in my next post I'm looking to address the divide you mentioned, why it's there, why it's growing and reasons it should be closing.

Pattie Matheson said...

Great post, as usual. Have ya noticed you've a bit of the educator in you?

Kinda surprised to hear about your GPA. I'm thinking you were the kid who spent lots of quality time on things that interested him and less on Algebra and English; "2. Where's my green at?" Just sayin'... ;)

And I bet History saved your GPA 'cause you know way more about that than the average person anywhere.

How did you decide on St Edwards? Guessing again but I'd bet my next check that you've thoroughly considered all the possibilities. Good habit to get into. As the VA has taught you, life can be full of complications and the greatest favor you can do yourself is to be prepared. Oh, and about 30 years into it I learned that having a Plan B is a good idea too!

~P~

Alex said...

Pattie,

You're right about the classes, I'd typically abscond from my homework in favor of computer games and history texts. The only classes that seemed to interest me were history and geography, and my favorite, American Wars. Everything else was too simple (English) or too frustrating (Algebra). I managed to fail English twice in four years, a crowning achievement in a lackluster high school career.

My decision on St. Edwards is mostly due to convenience and geography. The University of Texas doesn't have a global studies/international studies major, but St. Edwards does - and it's very close to home. They don't require an Algebra credit (just college level math) and my major requires a semester abroad. You can't really beat that. I also think smaller classrooms suit me better than a large auditorium. Also, my dad is an Aggie and would never live down having a Longhorn son.

Anonymous said...

Alex,
Thanks for spreading this information regarding VA and the New GI Bill. I have some additional things to add.

I understand that all students dealing with the VA for the education money are upset and they should be...they were promised the moon and can't get it because of the many delays and inadequate computer systems. But I do ask that you don't get mad at the people that answer the phone or the web inquiries, they are only doing the job they were told to do. They are not the ones that created the new GI Bill as complicated as it is to administrate, nor were they the ones that didn't plan well enough to anticipate the huge influx of students taking advantage of the new GI Bill. Your elected officials were the ones that created it and the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington DC big wigs are the ones that didn't plan well enough nor give the employees that process the claims the tools to make quick and accurate decisions.

So please do not cuss or yell at VA employees, they completely understand the student's issues but they don't have the power to fix anything. Currently they are being micro managed and working many hours of over time trying to process the education claims as dictated by DC.

Please complain to your elected officials.

Also, Alex is very correct in that you need to keep in constant contact with your School Certifying Officials. They are not VA employees. They are school employees and generally were forced to add the VA duties to their normal school duties. I also ask that you don't yell or cuss at them either. If you have a complaint about a school certifying official, please use the chain of command at the school. Sometimes they do have the wrong person in the job and the bosses need to be made aware of the problems.

Use every financial aid package or student loan made available to you. It is better to have more money then not enough. Use the financial aid package until you receive your VA money and then use the VA money to pay back the loans you took out. Currently VA is 10-12 weeks behind in processing enrollments. If it has been 10 weeks from the date that the certifying official submitted the enrollment certification, contact the VA through their web inquiry system. I hate to say it, but things do get overlooked and not placed in the correct "que" to be worked.

Once last thing to mention, the education benefits are yours and you must take ownership of those benefits. You must keep copies of every letter that the VA sends to you and you need to ensure that VA has all the information regarding your claim that is needed. If you have not submitted an application, VA can't process the enrollment certification submitted by the school. If you have changed schools or programs, you need to submit a change form to the VA; again, VA won't be able to process the enrollment certification. Do not rely on the school official to be your personal assistant, they are only required to do their job and that is to obtain the necessary information to submit the enrollment certification to the VA and report any changes to the submitted enrollment certification.

Which reminds me....VA pays for grades that go toward your GPA and for your attendance. If you receive grades that don’t go toward your GPA, such as a "W", VA will make you pay the money back. If you stop attending class, the certifying official is required to report that to the VA. So please make good grades and attend all of your classes. Remember your professors and advisors are not aware of VA regulations and sometimes their advice doesn't agree or is in your best interest for our pocket book (VA money).

Good grades and attendance is the key to preventing overpayments. Being proactive and planning is the key to not being a victim of the VA red tape.

membrain said...

Props for what you're doing for your fellow vets Alex. Pattie's right: you're an excellent teacher/leader.

Thanks for everything you've done and continue to do.

TRACEY said...

Just getting started with school under the chapter 33...if it takes so long for the BAH do they atleast give you back pay for the wait??

Alex said...

TRACEY,

I don't know the answer to that question, but I have not heard of anyone collecting back pay on their housing allowance. The logical solution would be to issue back pay since the day you submitted your paperwork, but I don't know if that is a reasonable suggestion. I know they do that with disability claims, however.

SGT Ted said...

Another avenue that Disabled Vets can pursue is the VAs Vocational Rehabilitation program (CH 31 I beleive), which can pay for a degree. I retired a year ago and am attending a trade school that Chapter 33 won't cover and my Ch 30 bennies weren't covering the bill. So, I went thru Voc Rehab, got approved and my tuition is paid for directly from the VA. I also receive a monthly stipend and will have all my tools (anywhere from 10-15k worth)paid for once I get a job. Vets with 20% or higher ratings should really look into this; they paid my tuition bill retroactively. YMMV. SGT Ted says "check it out".

Carla said...

I graduated from a Liberal Arts College in 2000 and most of the kids in my classes had very few experiences outside of the comfort of their small home towns. As I became more and more frustrated hearing them ramble on about subjects they thought they were so knowledgeable about, I began to speak up.

If you pay attention closely enough, especially in the history and political science classes, you'll find tons of opportunities to jump in and share the knowledge you gained while serving in military. If you're not comfortable at first telling people you were in the military, you don't have to. For me, I simply said things like, "when I was in Iraq, enemy soldiers were surrendering by the dozens." I didn't have to mention that I was in the military.

Finally, I became comfortable sharing that fact with people, and like you said, you have to do it with a certain degree of humility. Choose your words wisely!

Being in college is a great time to take the time to reflect on your experiences in war and to apply what you learned there to the rest of the world. You will be amazed at how you will come to form new beliefs and philosophies.

Enjoyed reading your story.