By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2010 - With more than 260,000 students attending about 6,000 colleges and universities this fall under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, officials are continuing an active outreach effort to ensure current military members and veterans don't miss out on the new program's education benefits.
Participation is up significantly from last year, when 180,000 students used Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to start the fall 2009 semester, Keith Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, told American Forces Press Service.
For the first time since the U.S. government offered the original GI Bill benefits after World War II, about 50,000 of the students covered have been family members �- wives, husbands and children of enrollees. This "transferability" feature was a big draw of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Defense Department officials said, and remains an important recruiting and retention incentive. So far, the military services have approved 145,000 servicemember requests to transfer benefits to about 331 family members, Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez reported.
Last week, Pentagon personnel chief Clifford Stanley and the service recruiting chiefs called the education benefit a huge factor in helping them achieve recruiting and retention successes in fiscal 2010.
The vast majority of the students currently taking advantage of GI Bill benefits attend public universities. However, Wilson said, continued growth within the Yellow Ribbon program that enables students to attend some of the country's most prestigious and high-end private schools.
The 3,000 participating colleges and universities agree to waive or offset up to 50 percent of costs above the highest public in-state undergraduate rate, and the Veterans Affairs Department matches the same amount.
As VA officials laud the Post 9/11 GI Bill's popularity and growth, officials are continuing to tweak the systems that drive it to make them faster, more responsive and more customer-friendly. Last fall, as VA experienced some "hiccups" rolling out the new benefit, it took an average of 48 days to issue payments after receiving enrollment notification from a college of university, Wilson said.
This fall, he said, it took about 17 days.
"We have experienced a fundamental improvement in our ability to pay people timely," Wilson said. "But we hope to cut it down even more. What we would like to see is a 10-day turnaround on these things, and we are confident we will get there."
To meet that goal, Wilson is counting on automation to cut the time required to make eligibility decisions and calculate benefits �- now largely a manual process. New systems are being phased in, he said, and the initial systems are now being used to process all claims. The next step, he said, is to integrate data feeds from other VA systems.
"Once we get them in place, our goal is for a lot of the work to not require human intervention at all," Wilson said. "It will take us weeding through these and making sure we get it right."
These improvements could prove particularly important if Congress votes to broaden eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and extend some of its benefits. Among changes being considered are measures to extend benefits to National Guardsmen activated under Title 32 authority and both Guard and Reserve troops for time served in full-time support roles. Senate Bill 3447, the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010," seeks additional new benefits, including a partial housing allowance for students pursuing distance education.
Wilson, who testified during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in July, said VA generally supports most measures in the bill, but is working with Congress to tweak language to ensure it provides the anticipated benefits without creating unforeseen problems. He also emphasized that the program must be funded to cover any additional costs.
"There were several pieces of [the legislation] that we were in support of from a conceptual standpoint," he told AFPS. "We did have concern about the technical language, and then making sure the costing is acceptable to everybody."
In the meantime, VA continues actively reaching out to servicemembers and veterans to make sure they know about the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit.
"What we're working the hardest on right now is getting the word out to veterans about what a great program it is," Wilson said, citing direct mailings and other ads that target both groups as well as family members.
Expressing pride in how far the program has advanced during the past year, Wilson said the best measure of its success is illustrated by the students taking advantage of its benefits.
"We have significantly more students in school, and they are pursuing their dreams," he said. "At its core -- that is what is successful."
Wilson challenged students to follow through with their educations and make the program count, just as the original GI Bill recipients did after World War II.
"We need the servicemembers and veterans of the country to be the leaders of the next generation of Americans," he said. "We have given them the opportunity to step up to the plate, but ultimately, they have to graduate and succeed."
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