On Veterans Day, student vets deserve backup

Hundreds of thousands of veterans are taking advantage of the new GI Bill. They need the support of the VA and educators.

This Veterans Day, hundreds of thousands of vets are taking advantage of the most generous GI Bill since World War II. Congress got it right in 2008 when it increased tuition funding for returning service men and women. With the aid kicking in this fall, the Department of Veteran Affairs as well as colleges and universities must also do right by student vets. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the department name.]

That hasn't been so easy at the VA, which expects the number of veterans receiving federal education aid to increase by as much as 25 percent this year – to 460,000.

Applicants have overwhelmed the VA's old technology and bureaucracy, delaying delivery of checks that fully cover in-state tuition and provide a stipend for housing and books. (Matching dollars are available at private institutions that give vets financial aid.)

The backup has forced some veterans to choose work over school and drop classes for lack of funds. "I'm here to say we're sorry," said Tammy Duckworth, the assistant VA secretary, at the University of Missouri in St. Louis last month. More than that, the VA has hired 700 people to help process claims and is sending out $3,000 emergency checks to tide over veterans.

For their part, many colleges and universities are showing flexibility with delayed payments. Also to their credit, many of them are gearing up to serve this special population, which was not so warmly welcomed on campuses in the 1960s and '70s.

Helping America's student vets is more than a matter of funding. The transition from battlefield to campus green can be jarring. Vets are older, often married, and many arrive in class with physical and mental scars. Instead of combating the enemy, they're entangled with cumbersome bureaucracies.

So it's encouraging to see America's institutions of higher learning making an effort to support this special group. Nationwide, 57 percent of public and private colleges and universities provide support services for veterans, according to a survey by the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents and chancellors of degree-granting accredited institutions.

Student veterans are also mobilizing, having formed about 200 chapters of Student Veterans of America since its founding in 2008. The students are making their needs known, and colleges are responding.

Last year, for instance, student vets contacted the president's office at George Mason University in northern Virginia. They were distressed that service members who were called up for duty midsemester received F's and lost their tuition. The university has since hired a full-time liaison for the school's 425 veterans. It reversed the objectionable policies.

Other schools are creating "transition" programs to help vets adjust to school-life. These schools are holding orientations just for veterans, making counseling available, and even reserving vets-only hours at the gym. Simply changing the tuition due date to match the time when veterans receive their benefits can cut red tape and anxiety.

The prospect of $78 billion in student aid to veterans over the next 10 years is surely a strong motivator for universities and colleges to provide support services for them. But so is the moral imperative of giving back to those who have already given so much.

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