VA isn’t cutting checks quick enough for veterans-turned-students
Computer glitches delay tuition, housing payments
Rashaad Ingram helped bury 1,300 veterans as a member of the Army’s famed Old Guard, the presidential escort regiment that carries caskets at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
Ingram, 33, says he became 70 percent disabled from the physical demands of the job, a solemn ritual that helps grieving families take solace in a country’s final respects. But now, after four years of honorable service, Ingram has yet to receive a promised $7,000 tuition payment from the Department of Veterans Affairs for his nearly completed fall semester at Northeastern University.
Northeastern has agreed to wait for the money, but many student veterans around the country are not as fortunate. Tens of thousands of housing allowances and tuition payments, required by law under the GI Bill, have not been paid on time as the VA struggles to update its massive, outdated computer system and chip away at a huge backlog of student claims.
For veterans committed to full-time studies, every dollar counts, and the late funds have created a hardship for some who have scrambled to find other ways to pay bills.
“I don’t give them a pass,” said Ingram, a graduate student who lives in Somerville. “With how much money we spend on defense, there’s enough money around to make sure this is working.”
The VA pays tuition directly to colleges and universities, so Ingram did not learn of the unpaid debt until classes began in September. With an outstanding bill, he could not log into his account on the university website, and he could not access his student records.
Ingram said that the veterans office at Northeastern, where approximately 700 former service members are enrolled, quickly helped remove the hold on his account. University officials said they do not know how many veterans are waiting for tuition to be paid, but that about 100 student veterans have reported delays in housing allowances from the VA.
“It’s not usual to see a large number like that,” said Andrew McCarty, director of the university’s Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Service Members.
“We only know of it when the students come to us and ask questions.”
The computer problem — pending VA claims from students peaked at 207,000 in September, about three times the normal number — can be traced in part to changes to the new Forever GI Bill that Congress passed in August 2017.
That law eliminated a 15-year limit on education benefits for veterans discharged or released from active duty after Jan. 1, 2013. It also required that housing allowances be based on where a veteran takes classes, sometimes at rural and suburban satellite campuses, rather than the university’s headquarters in often costlier locations.
That adjustment proved too much for the VA’s antiquated computer system to handle, veterans groups said.
“There were multiple layers of problem after problem in the system,” said Patrick Murray, deputy director for national legislation for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In July, VA officials told Congress that the glitches would be fixed in time to process housing allowances for the fall semester. But those reassurances did not turn into reality, and delays began to mount as the school year approached.
Anger and confusion followed. And this week, within the space of about 25 hours, VA officials changed course three times on whether veterans would be reimbursed if their housing allowances were reduced while the new system is implemented.
“The VA just can’t get it right. They take one step forward and two steps back,” Murray said. “I don't know if disorganized even begins to describe it.”
On Thursday, a day after saying they would not pay the reimbursements, VA leaders reversed themselves in the face of a ferocious backlash and said any shortchanged veterans would receive full payments. Changes to the housing allowance are scheduled to take effect in December 2019.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Salem and Marine Corps veteran of Iraq, assailed the VA on Friday as guilty of “gross negligence.”
“The fact that the VA is indecisive in doing the right thing for veterans because it is hard is simply disgraceful,” Moulton and other combat veterans in the House wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
On Thursday, Wilkie said that recalculating the housing rates “during a busy academic season was like flying a plane while building it, and that was unfair and frustrating to veterans and taxpayers.”
Although the VA added that pending claims for student veterans had returned to normal levels, the VFW pledged to keep a close eye on the situation.
“The VFW will continue to push for the proper implementation of the Forever GI Bill so that all student veterans receive the prompt and full benefits they earned and deserve,” National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement.
Ingram said he is fortunate because his wife’s salary supplements the income he earns as a fund-raiser for City Year, the Boston student support group. Many veterans in college do not have such reserves, he said, and depend almost exclusively on what the VA provides them.
Ingram, an Ohio native who grew up in inner-city Columbus, received an accounting degree from Arizona State University through the GI Bill. Enough benefits remained after graduation to pursue a master’s degree in nonprofit management at Northeastern, he said.
“I don’t know what my life would have looked like” without an education after the Army, Ingram said. “I don’t know if I would have been able to go to school.”
At Northeastern, officials in the veterans center said the VA has been responsive when contacted about late payments.
“The VA, if they’ve done anything right in this whole fiasco, have been pretty open,” said Max Spahn, a Marine veteran and the office’s assistant director. “The VA eventually will get caught up with the university. We’re not holding any students accountable.”
Ingram said he’s grateful to the Army but is reminded of a potential problem every time he receives an automated e-mail message that his tuition bill is overdue.
“We’re so much more willing to invest in defense,” he said, “but so much less willing to invest . . . in the hardware and software to make this run smoothly.”