Higher Education

The new G.I. Bill: Big money, big challenges

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CSM Roger Parker, Jr., (US Army-Ret), helps his grandson Tyrell Parker, 9, whom Parker is raising, work on his homework at their apartment on September 12, 2011 in Pasadena, Md. Parker, 51, has returned to college to study Health, Fitness and Nutrition at Anne Arundel Community College. Colleges such as Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland have opened up the Military and Veterans Resource Center to assist military personnel and veterans returning to school while and after serving in the armed forces. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

ARNOLD, Md.—On the first day of the fall semester last month, new arrivals slowed traffic at the entrances to Anne Arundel Community College, unsure which one to take. They circled for places to park, lined up at the information desk, and struggled with the convoluted calculus of course schedules.

A trickle of these new students found their way into a tiny office with a big American flag on one cinderblock wall. They were military veterans, with more urgent problems on their minds: when their G.I. Bill benefits would arrive, how they would pay for books and housing, and why their reimbursements were short or late.

Mostly, they wanted someone who could quickly and reliably answer their many questions and address their unique concerns. Growing numbers of student veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and other disabilities, and many are returning to school with full-time jobs and families to support on top of the usual demands of college.

“I did everything my country asked of me,” said Roger Parker, 51, who wears his Army football jersey, Airborne baseball cap, and camouflage backpack like a resume of his 30 years in the Army—which included three tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, and one in Bosnia—and who carries around a bill he received from the college for the difference between the cost of his courses and what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid out. The unexplained shortfall: $6. “No one told me that when I came out of one hostile environment, I would end up in another hostile environment fighting for my benefits.”

That $6 bill isn’t about the amount, Parker said. It’s about the principle of the thing, and how veterans often feel that they’re on their own against the huge VA and higher-education systems.

Two years after a broadened G.I. Bill took effect for Americans who served in the military on or after September 11, 2001, spiraling numbers of military veterans are using it to enroll in colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, these schools—attracted to the $11 billion a year from the federal government that student veterans collectively bring with them—are actively recruiting from this lucrative new pool.

G.I. Bill by the numbers

-Number of veterans using G.I. Bill benefits last year, the most recent period for which the figure is available, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: 800,000

-Increase from the year before: 42 percent

-Number who are eligible, meaning they have served in the military since September 11, 2001: 2.1 million

-Amount being spent per year on G.I. Bill benefits, according to the VA: $11 billion

-What the G.I. Bill pays for: all resident tuition and fees for a public university or college and the higher of the actual tuition and fees or $17,500 per academic year for a private university and college, plus an allowance for books and housing

-Amount of time after leaving the service that veterans have to use their G.I. Bill benefits: 15 years

-Student veterans who say the G.I. Bill is what prompted them to enroll in higher education, according to the American Council on Education: 25 percent

-Student veterans who say they have trouble understanding their GI Bill benefits and options, according to the American Council on Education: 38 percent

-Average processing time for tuition reimbursement, according to the VA: 12 days

-Average processing time two years ago: 60 days

-Student veterans who say they have experienced suicidal thoughts, according to the National Center for Veterans Studies: 46 percent

-College and university students overall who say they have considered suicide, according to the American College Health Association: 6 percent

-Student veterans who say they have attempted suicide: 7.7 percent

-Students overall who say they have: 1.3 percent

-Number of student veterans on the main campus of Georgetown University: 331 (including some active-duty service members using VA education benefits)

-Estimated number of student veterans at American University: 200

But veterans and their advocates are growing impatient over the pace at which colleges and universities are opening offices like the one at Anne Arundel, and their slowness in hiring full-time veterans’ counselors and liaisons to deal not only with red tape, but also with the unique issues faced by student veterans who have almost nothing in common with their 18-year-old classmates.

“It should be a win-win,” said Colby Howard, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq and heads the Georgetown University Student Veterans of America. The group is pushing for a full-time coordinator to serve the 331 veterans on Georgetown’s main campus and is still waiting for a full-time coordinator to be added this fall, as promised, in the university’s School of Continuing Studies, which enrolls many veterans.

“It’s guaranteed revenue for the school,” Howard said. “But there’s a lot of concern that the recruitment doesn’t come with the support.”

Even at Anne Arundel, which does more than many colleges for the 692 veterans enrolled this fall among its 17,665 students, the administrator in charge of the Veterans’ Resource Center is a student who works only part time.

“The military is K.I.S.S.—keep it simple and stupid—whereas here it’s fathoms above your head,” said Brian Hobson, 46, an ex-Army combat engineer who stopped in at the Anne Arundel veterans support office on the first day of the semester and who said he suffers from a traumatic brain injury. “They need someone who’s going to represent the veteran.”

At American University, a group of veterans called AUVets is pushing the university to hire a full-time staffer for the more than 200 veterans enrolled there.

“You learn a lot of skills in the military—how to be part of a team, how to take orders, how to give orders,” said AUVets president John Kamin, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq. “But there’s one thing they don’t teach you how to do, which is how to look out for Number One. Then you come to an environment like a university, where you have all this bureaucracy and there’s no one looking after you but yourself. You’re on your own, and that can be a really isolating experience for veterans.”

American University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the university “pledge[s] to work with our student veterans groups to seek an appropriate solution.” And Georgetown is considering “the best ways to allocate our resources to meeting the needs of these students,” spokeswoman Maggie Moore said.

Nearly 800,000 veterans used education benefits last year, the first full year of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which pays up to the full cost of the highest in-state tuition at a public college or university, plus stipends for books and living expenses. That was up 42 percent from the year before, according to the VA.

For some, it’s been a difficult transition.

Veterans are more likely to enroll part time or transfer among schools, and generally don’t feel supported or understood, according to a survey by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. They’re twice as likely as other students to have disabilities, as well as to spend more time working or raising families. Thirty-eight percent have trouble figuring out their VA benefits, another survey, by the American Council on Education, found. And the National Center for Veterans’ Studies at the University of Utah reports that almost half of military veterans enrolled in college have considered suicide, a rate eight times higher than that for other students. It found that half of veteran students show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a third experience severe anxiety.

SFC Brian Hobson (US Army-Ret) stares at the computer monitor during his architecture class at Anne Arundel Community College on September 8, 2011 in Arnold, Md. Hobson, 46, returned to college after serving 23 years in the military and is now studying architecture. Colleges such as Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland have opened up the Military and Veterans Resource Center to assist military personnel and veterans returning to school while and after serving in the armed forces. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“When you talk about these kinds of things hurting veterans—it’s killing veterans,” said Patrick O’Rourke, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who quit his job as director of veterans’ affairs at California State University-Long Beach to advocate for student veterans’ services. “Presidents and provosts need to be held accountable. How many veterans attending those institutions committed suicide? How many dropped out?”

James Holbrook, a Vietnam veteran and founding member of the National Center for Veterans Studies, said, “The wars themselves have dropped off the radar screens of many Americans, so they don’t understand or even know about the kinds of burdens and issues combat soldiers face. It’s not surprising when veteran students return to the classroom that these are like people who have come from two different planets.”

There’s been some progress. The average processing time at the VA has fallen from 60 days two years ago to 12 days now, according to Keith Wilson, director of the agency’s Education Service. The VA is testing a program called VetSuccess—offering counseling and personal assistance to student veterans—at Texas A&M and San Diego State universities, the University of South Florida, and five other campuses, and plans to expand it to another nine schools next year.

The presidents of public colleges and universities in Maryland—spurred on by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, an Army veteran who served in Iraq—have signed an agreement to make veterans’ services a priority, and representatives of the schools will meet September 23 to work out specifics. And about 100 campuses nationally have signed on to a “Remembrance Day National Roll Call” on Veteran’s Day at which non-veteran students will observe a minute of silence and read out the names of Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More Coverage

Listen to reporter Jon Marcus talk more about the story on WBUR, Boston’s local NPR station.

“It’s very meaningful to veterans,” said Brett Morris, the veterans’ coordinator at Eastern Kentucky University, who came up with the idea. “It can be part of the healing process for them.”

Veterans’ coordinators at universities that have them help student veterans cut through red tape. At Texas Tech, for instance, the veterans’ coordinator, Ryan van Dusen, made it easier for them to understand the bureaucracy by assigning ranks and a clear chain of command to university administrators. The president is the general, department heads are captains, and deans are battalion commanders. At some schools, faculty who are willing to counsel veterans have put “Green Zone” stickers on their doors, an idea modeled after the rainbow decals used to identify safe havens for gay, lesbian and transgendered students.

But many universities have been slow to provide full-time support, especially as budgets are stretched and there are competing demands for limited resources.

“The momentum has faded away,” said Michelle Cyrus, assistant director of the Center for Student Empowerment at Central Washington University in Washington State and co-chair of a national association of veterans’ coordinators. “Now that we’re seeing more cutbacks, we’re not providing for the veterans. I’ve heard a couple of veterans say they sometimes feel that universities just see them as cash cows, as guaranteed money.”

The issue now is drawing the attention of the VA and the Pentagon. Though the VA doesn’t require that universities with veterans have veteran coordinators, “that’s not the same as saying that we’re not interested in that,” said Wilson, a Navy veteran who used his own G.I. benefits to attend the University of Nebraska. “Higher education is a difficult environment. What veterans need is somebody to be a single point of contact.”

Col. David Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon’s director of the Office of Warrior and Family Support, has been visiting campuses and advocating for veterans to receive more services. “What I’ve found is that when the veterans feel connected to the institution, they thrive. When they’re at a university that thinks they will do fine [on their own], they don’t seem to do as well.”

Back at Anne Arundel, Navy veteran Jonathan Dochenetz is musing over why his VA payment for a long-finished summer course has only just arrived.

“I don’t know how the kids do it who are coming straight out [of the military],” said Dochenetz, 38, who works for an engineering company. “On top of everything else, their housing allowance gets held up and they get evicted. I have a friend who after one semester went and talked to a recruiter about getting back in [the Navy], she was so fed up.”

A version of this story appeared in The Washington Post on September 14, 2011.

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