Maximizing Financial Aid for Veterans
BILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN new veteran education benefits will be available next year. The challenge is getting veterans to take advantage of all the benefits available to them.
The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new GI Bill recently signed into law, and increased veterans benefits in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) should provide ample motivation for higher education leaders to review their veterans’ support systems to ensure they are doing all they can to help veterans afford and complete college.
Both veterans and leaders at IHEs face significant challenges trying to secure all of the education benefits available to vets. This is primarily because veterans’ educational benefits come from a variety of sources and a host of programs. Many veterans are eligible for military educational benefits from Veterans Affairs; financial aid from federal, state, and local sources; disability benefits; living support from community services; and more. Add to this the new GI Bill, which provides substantial increases in aid and new benefits, plus new benefits in the HEA, and it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to keep track of them.
Because of the variety of sources that provide veteran education aid, many veterans don’t take advantage of all possible benefits. Many aren’t aware that specific types of aid are available, and many more have inaccurate assumptions about benefit programs. For example, some veterans don’t apply for federal student aid because they assume that their military educational benefits make them ineligible for federal student aid.
To help veterans navigate the complicated financial aid process, institutions should work to provide a one-stop shop to give veteran students information about all the possible benefits in one location. Providing a one-stop shop requires various offices on campus to work closely together to provide all relevant information in one location. Ideally, the veteran affairs, financial aid, admissions and various academic departments would collaborate to provide aid, admission, academic and living support to veterans to ensure full access and success at the institution.
It’s not always possible for an institution to provide all this information in one physical office. At the very least, IHEs should create a web center with all pertinent information for veteran students.
In addition to helping veterans get all the aid and support they need, collaborating to create this one-stop shop will help train staff in various offices about support systems for veterans offered throughout the campus and in the community. This will help staff better serve veteran students and increase the chances that veterans will get the right information.
For example, an admissions counselor who is familiar with financial aid and veteran education benefits can provide veterans with the forms they need from the financial aid and veteran affairs offices, as well as from other on-campus support groups and benefits. This person could also inform veterans that there may be special circumstances that allow financial aid administrators to use professional judgment to increase their aid eligibility.
New veteran education benefits in the updated GI Bill and 2008 amendments to the HEA provide a good opportunity to begin greater collaboration between relevant offices to better support veterans. They will also help ensure institutions are ready to administer the significant influx in veteran education aid that’s provided by Congress.
Beginning August 1, 2009, the federal government will begin supplying additional educational aid to veterans who served in the armed forces on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and had an honorable discharge or a discharge due to a medical condition. These soldiers will be eligible for at least three kinds of educational benefits: tuition benefits, housing stipends, and an allowance for books. Benefit amounts will be based on the amount of time a veteran has served in the military.
IHEs should inform veteran students about these benefits early and often to ensure they understand and take advantage of them. Again, collaboration can help this effort because the more employees who understand the new benefits, the more likely veterans are to hear about them.
Once the new rules are in effect, eligible veterans will be able to obtain:
--Up to the amount of the maximum tuition and fees for an in-state student at the most expensive public school in that state.
--Up to $1,000 per academic year for books, supplies, equipment, and other educational costs.
--A monthly housing stipend equal to the amount of basic housing for military personnel in military housing, adjusted by ZIP code. Individuals with a skill or specialty that is in critically short supply, as designated by the secretary of defense, may have their monthly stipend increased.
--Up to $100 per month for up to 12 months for students who require tutoring, as certified by the instructor leading the course.
--A $500 relocation/travel assistance grant for those living in a county with fewer than seven persons per square mile and who relocate at least 500 miles to attend school or who must travel by air to attend an institution because it is too far to drive.
--Up to $2,000 for one licensing or certification exam.
In addition, the law creates a Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program that allows IHEs to voluntarily cover a portion of tuition and fees not otherwise covered by the law. In instances where the educational benefits do not cover the full cost of tuition and fees at the school, the government will provide up to 50 percent of any remaining costs if the school puts up the other 50 percent. The government will list on its website all schools that choose to enter into these arrangements.
The new law also allows eligible individuals to transfer a portion of their education benefits to a spouse and/or children (until the age of 26). This option is available to active armed forces members who have completed at least six years of service and agree to serve at least four more years. The U.S. Education Department may limit the months of entitlement that may be transferred to no less than 18 months.
Besides offering these new benefits, the HEA requires institutions to readmit veterans that return from active duty at the same academic status that they had when they were deployed. Under the HEA, state institutions must charge active-duty service members stationed in that state and their dependents the in-state tuition rate, even if the service member is transferred outside the state. The HEA will also allow disabled veterans who receive “permanent total disability” from the Department of Veterans Affairs to have their loans discharged without filing additional documentation.
These benefits can make a significant difference for veterans and their families, but they won’t do any good if they are not used. Unfortunately, many veterans never use their benefits. That is why it is so important for various offices on campus to collaborate to help these students enter and complete their higher education.
The Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) and the Concurrent Admissions Program (ConAP) are two partnership programs that work with colleges to get servicemembers and veterans into and through college. The SOC is a consortium of IHEs dedicated to helping servicemembers and their families get college degrees by adopting policies on credit transfer, academic residency, military learning credit, admissions, and extra-institutional learning credit to accommodate the unique needs of military students.
ConAP, on the other hand, is a partnership between the SOC, Army Recruiting Command, and more than 1,900 SOC institutions. The program works to increase enlistment of college-capable active-duty and reserve soldiers, increase the number of Army soldiers, veterans, and reservists enrolled in college, and increase use of Montgomery GI Bill education benefits.
When soldiers enlist in the Army or Army Reserve, recruiters encourage them to select a ConAP college and send a College Referral and Intent to Enroll form stating their intent to enroll during or after the enlistment. The IHEs acknowledge the soldiers’ intent and provide guidelines about applying for admission not more than one year before the expected entry date, beginning the college academic experience, using distance learning, and staying in touch by e-mail and the college website.
Nearly every enlistee is a high school graduate with Montgomery GI Bill education benefits. The Army wants its soldiers to use their education benefits, and ConAP puts soldiers on track to do so from the beginning of their enlistment.
Both programs help institutional administrators take an active roll in promoting and delivering education to servicemembers and veterans. IHEs that don’t already participate in these programs should consider joining, and existing participants should make sure that staff is aware of the the program details. (For more information, visit www.soc.aascu.org.)
The federal government has renewed its commitment to helping servicemembers and veterans enter and complete college, but more needs to be done to ensure that these students take advantage of these benefits. Institutions can do their part by collaborating to ensure that veterans get accurate and timely information so they can take advantage of these benefits—and complete their education.
Haley Chitty is assistant director of communications at NASFAA, www.nasfaa.org.