Watchdog praises VA for education on new GI bill

By Kellie Lunney

March 31, 2011

The Veterans Affairs Department generally does a good job informing service members of their education benefits, but could improve its outreach to disabled vets, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Awareness of the tuition benefits available to the military, particularly those under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, is high among service members and veterans in the general population, GAO found through interviews. But the watchdog recommended VA develop performance measures to better track the actual efficacy of its outreach. The program that handles education and the one for vocational rehabilitation and employment for disabled vets need to coordinate their efforts to inform disabled vets of their assistance options, GAO recommended.

"Education program officials told us that they do not conduct targeted outreach to individuals with disabilities because eligibility for VA education benefits is based on length of military service, rather than disability status," the report said.

The department conducts outreach on education assistance through marketing and ad campaigns, information on its website and social media, a call center and briefings offered to service members at the time of their separation from the military.

VA currently has four active education benefit programs for service members and veterans -- the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty, the Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve and the Reserve Educational Assistance Program. Individuals might be eligible for more than one of these programs, and disabled vets also are eligible to receive education and job counseling benefits through the department's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. But if disabled vets choose to obtain assistance through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they are ineligible for benefits under the vocational program.

The education program and the vocational rehabilitation and employment program typically conduct separate outreach, but VA is working to improve coordination between the two, GAO said. The agency reported that 84 percent of the school certifying officials it interviewed -- those who certify veteran enrollment status -- had not received training on working with service members and veterans with disabilities, and VA told the watchdog that the education program had not developed guidance or training for those officials on how to better serve that constituency.

VA began providing benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill in August 2009; in fiscal 2010, it doled out $9 billion in education benefits, mostly under that program, to more than 700,000 service members. Because of the spike in applications and the increased complexity of the new process, the department initially had a tough time processing claims quickly. The benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill are highly individualized and based on factors such as length of service and the location of the schools enrollees attend.

School officials and state agencies also told GAO that they'd like more guidance from VA on carrying out the mandates of the new GI bill, in particular certifying enrollment and providing accurate information for processing claims. In addition, they said some vets might have difficulty determining which benefits are right for them, how to calculate their benefit amount and the effect of the Post-9/11 GI bill on other forms of assistance.

GAO also recommended VA improve its oversight of schools and state agencies involved in providing education benefits to service members and vets.

The department generally agreed with GAO's recommendations and is in the process of implementing them, according to the report.

By Kellie Lunney

March 31, 2011