New Year, New You: Pursuing A Degree that Fits

It’s officially 2019 – and while the year is only a day and a half old, many of us have been thinking about our resolutions and how to make our lives better in the new year. Some of us will be starting a diet and new fitness routine. Some of us will be cleaning and organizing our homes. Some of us will be working on our budgets and finances. If there is a still a longing in your heart for a change that doesn’t fit these descriptions, perhaps a change in your education might help you along your journey.

Making the jump to being a student again can be daunting. There are more choices available now than ever before and many decisions need to be made before the application process even begins.

Step 1: What do you like?

What do you like? At what do you readily excel? There are bound to be activities in your life that bring you joy that could be turned into an academic program and possibly career. Sit down and make a list of your strengths, passions, likes and activities. Once you have made that list, start to explore the academic options that best match up.

Step 2: Match your hobbies with a degree.

In so many cases, a hobby can be turned into a career. Are you passionate about animals? Perhaps a Veterinary assistant would be an ideal career for you! Love children? Pursue a degree in early childhood education. Photography your jam? Look to take photojournalism classes as part of a journalism program. If you can’t stand math classes and hate working with numbers, then it would be counter-productive to pursue a degree in accounting!

Step 3: Look for programs in your area

A great place to start is your local community school. They typically offer a plethora of degrees across a wide variety of disciplines and can be great for adult professionals looking to advance an existing career or jump start a new one. If it turns out that your desired degree requires a four year or more commitment, your local community school can probably point you in the right direction as well. Don’t forget about online degrees – depending on what you are going for, the online option might be the best way to pursue your academic dreams without uprooting your entire family.

Step 4: Pick a program and apply!

Hitting the “apply now” button is sometimes the scariest thing! The leap of faith of will pay off, however, as you truly won’t know until you try.

Step 5: Explore your GI Benefits and change your future!

You’ve served your country and now deserve the opportunity for self-exploration and improvement. Be sure to mention your service time to the advisors you meet along the way and get your documentation together for a smooth process.

End of Semester GI Bill Update

End of Semester GI Bill Update

 

We reported a few weeks ago in GI Benefits in Limbo that GI Bill housing and tuition payments have been delayed as a result of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017. The sections of the law, which were implemented in 2017, required a complete overhaul and upgrade of the Veterans Benefits Administration technology infrastructure. While those upgrades were to be completed by this previous August, as of November, the majority of the upgrades had yet to be made and therefore payments were delayed across the country.

Fortunately for GI Bill recipients, the VBA has made progress and was able to update the thousands of students who have been waiting on payments.

Effective last week, the VBA had put in place a plan to be able to process the Spring 2020 semester by December 2019. This includes addition staffing and support as well as the solicitation of contractor bits.

While this is something to look forward to for many students, the VBA is also making adjustments to assist the students with immediate needs. The month housing allowance rates will be set to the Department of Defence Basic Housing Allowance rates. In many cases, this rate is equal to or higher than the payments that have been received previously. Additionally, the VBA will be correcting the underpayments retroactively.

Even better news for those who happened to be fortunate enough to have received an overpayment this year, the VBA will not be collecting those overpayments. Housing payments will be paid out according to the location of the academic institution’s main campus and will be independent of the student’s actual physical address.

All of these changes will come to a close on December 1, 2019. It is expected that VBA will have developed and implemented a satisfactory IT solution for sections 107 and 501 of the “Forever GI Bill” law. Many of the changes are an attempt to make the process easier for all participants. Changes such as more easily defining training sites as school campuses when will reduce burden and work for both students and schools. VBA is expected to remain in constant contact with Veterans, service organizations and Congress on the status of the implementations and expectations throughout the process. The call for increased communication  is in response to claim levels being triple that of normal in September of this year. While VBA claims levels are back to normal, they are encouraging schools and students to get Spring submissions in early to ensure timely payment.

Secretary Wilkie said “Redesigning the way VBA calculates Post 9/11 GI Bill housing rates during a busy academic season was like flying a plane while building it, and that was unfair and frustrated to Veterans and taxpayers. That’s why we are resetting our implementation of the law for the next year to ensure we get the technology and formula right to put Veterans first. In the meantime, beneficiaries receiving Post 9/11 GI Bill housing allowances will be paid at the DoD BAH rate, which in many cases will be equal to or higher than their current payment.”

Some other important details to remember:

  • VBA timeline standards are 28 days for new enrollments, 14 days for re-enrollments
  • Spring submissions can be sent in now
  • The Education Call Center number is 888-442-4551 and is open 8am to 7pm, EST, Monday-Friday
  • If you are experiencing a financial hardship due to the fall semester delays or need other assistance, please contact the Education Call Center

GI Benefits In Limbo

GI Benefits In Limbo

If you have been attempting to use your GI Benefits lately, you might already know what thousands of Veterans are finding out – your GI Benefits just aren’t coming.

In a technological glitch and resulting nightmare, the VA is experiencing a huge backlog which started after President Trump’s signing of the Forever GI Bill last year. The 2017 legislation expanded benefits for Veterans and their families. However, with bill did not provide for a change in the system infrastructure. The result? A technological bottleneck that has delayed payments to recipients across the country. Initially, the VA was given until August 1, 2018 to put the 34 new provisions in place. That deadline was missed but the promise to hit a mid-August deadline was made. This goal was also missed.

During this week’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, Senator Johnny Isakson (R- GA) had the following to say:

“The changes that should’ve been made in information technology weren’t made. The checks and balances we have built into the system weren’t followed.”“It’s come to my attention that the [VA] has screwed up accountability and responsibility for a Forever GI Bill benefit. The changes that should’ve been made in information technology weren’t made. The checks and balances we have built into the system weren’t followed.”

The checks and balances weren’t followed and the results are nearly catastrophic.

According to the VA, at least 82,000 recipients are currently awaiting housing payments. While that number is astronomical, the true number of impacted Americans is unknown. It is estimated that the number is actually in the hundreds of thousands. All involved parties agree that this non-partisan issue needs to be rectified, Representative Phil Roe (R – TN), the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has been quoted as saying “this is, to be kind, a train wreck.” The train wreck continues to take out more collateral damage with every passing day as an increasing number of Veterans find themselves in dire straits without the benefits that they have been promised and were expecting.

While the VA has acknowledged the problem, which first began rearing its ugly head this past summer, there is no concrete or conclusive plan in place to actually fix the debacle. Worse yet, VA officials were warned by advocates and lawmakers that this would happen prior to the system collapse.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence, top-ranking benefits’ official for the VA, appeared in front of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday and obviously struggled as he attempted to explain the situation and lack of progress. Estimates have been provided previously and remain unmet. At this time, Lawrence claimed the previous timetables were a “mistake” and the VA had no current estimate for when the technological issues might be resolved.

While outdated technology is plaguing the VA in their fulfillment of GI Benefits, it is nearly destroying Veterans who are supposed to be supported by those benefits. With just weeks left to the fall semester, many Veterans find themselves crippled with unexpected housing and academic costs. Heartbreaking stories of Veterans in crisis at the hands of the GI BIll program are popping out of the woodwork every day.

Dan Gorman, former sailor and NY National Guardsman is just one of those stories. Gorman was scheduled to graduate in May 2019, but with the current delays crippling his finances, that goal seems less and less likely every day.

“I can’t afford rent. I can’t afford groceries. It’s a lot of emotional strain and aggravation,” said Gorman.
According to Curt Cashour, VA Press Secretary, the VA has implemented 28 of the 34 changes. However, housing and tuition and reimbursement were not two of them and no estimate was given for when the remaining changes would be completed.

The most unfortunate twist in this mishap is that the VA failed to notify students of the potential pitfalls, even after they were aware. Students, like Gorman and many others, have been waiting for their checks to arrive – but they never do. Given that two of the major changes that have not been rolled out are those that impact living allowances and tuitions, Veterans find themselves unable to afford both school and day-to-day survival.
According to the VA, an additional 200 IT-based employees have been added to staff to assist with the remaining rollouts. The VA has had a year to complete the required IT upgrades and is now nearly four months past the original due date. While the additional staff and pressure from the House may help push the project to completion, it is of little consolation for those Veterans who find themselves being forced to give up their education.

The VA’s GI Bill Hotline is 888-GIBill-1 and the White House VA Hotline is 855-948-2311. If you or someone you know has received an incorrect disbursement, is missing a stipend or reimbursement, please contact these hotlines for assistance.

An Overview of the Post 9/11 GI Bill…

An Overview of the Post 9/11 GI Bill…

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

Since 1944, the GI Bill has helped millions of Veterans pay for college, graduate school, and training programs. Under this bill, qualifying Veterans and their family members can get money to cover all or some of the costs for school or training.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides education benefits for those who have served on active duty for 90 or more days after Sept. 10, 2001. The payment rate depends on how much active duty time a member has accrued.

Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition and housing allowance payments are based on the amount of creditable active-duty service after Sept. 10, 2001. Veterans who have been discharged for disability after at least 30 days of active duty automatically receive the 100% benefit tier. Active duty time for the Post-9/11 GI Bill can also include Title 10 mobilizations and some title 32 duty for reservists & guard members.

The GI Bills pays tuition and fees and provides a monthly housing allowance. The monthly Housing Allowance is based on the ZIP code of the location of the school, not the home ZIP code. This stipend averages $1,681 a month, but can exceed $2,700 depending on the location of the school. Students taking 100% of their courses online are eligible for a monthly stipend equal to half of the national average stipend, which is currently $825.

The GI Bill also provides for a stipend for books and supplies of up to $1,000 and gives veterans the opportunity to transfer their education benefits to their spouses or their children.

The newest version of the GI Bill, called the The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act (also known as the “Forever GI Bill”), was signed into law on August 17, 2017, and brings significant changes to Veterans’ education benefits over the next few years. The info sheet on the new version of the GI Bill can be found at the VA’s website.

 

Errors in Housing Payments for Some GI Bill Students

Errors in Housing Payments for Some GI Bill Students

Errors in Housing Payments for Some GI Bill Students

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

Some 340,000 students using the education benefit of the GI Bill were shorted in their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) in the month of August.

The new version of the GI Bill states that the amount students receive for their housing allowance each month should be based on where they take the most classes. The old version of the bill calculated that amount based on the location of the school’s main campus.

Either way, the calculations are equivalent to what an E-5 active-duty personnel with dependents would receive, and due to a technology issue, the VA was delayed in implementing the change.

A VA spokesperson said that the department is still working on the remaining technology updates and was in the process of preparing to notify students about the impact to their payments.

So when the fall semester started, student veterans received their BAH based on the previous system and the previous calendar year.

“Many of the benefits that (the Forever GI Bill) ensures have already been implemented; however it’s troubling to me that VA still has not yet finalized the IT systems needed to fully implement the law, despite having a year to do so,” said Rep. Phil Roe, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, whose Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity has held two hearings on the implementation of the bill.

Fifteen veterans groups penned a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie charging the VA of not being upfront about the problems, calling it “an organizational and customer service failure at the highest level.”

“It took several weeks into the current semester before any communication was sent to students, and schools have received little information beyond, ‘wait and see,’” their letter reads. “Transparency on what to expect and when to expect it, from all levels of leadership at VA, is critical to helping students and schools make informed decisions.”

GI Benefits and YOU

GI Benefits and YOU

GI Benefits and YOU

 

Contributed by Kris Baydalla-Galasso

It is “back to school” season across the country. Our college campuses are getting ready to welcome a new crop of freshmen students with open arms – and some are getting ready to welcome our military veterans into the ranks of their student body. Unavoidably, the cost of a four-year degree is on the rise. While there are a host of private grants, scholarships and financing available – active military, select reservists and National Guard members earn education benefits that will help make a post-service education more affordable.

Depending on where you attend school, your GI Benefits might just cover all of your expenses. For example, if you are attending a public college or university, you can expect to have your tuition covered and paid directly to your school. Additionally, the post 9/11 GI Bill provides a monthly housing allowance as well as an annual supply allowance.

In order to qualify for GI Benefits, you need to have served at least two years of active duty and have completed high school (or have a HS equivalency certificate). During your first year of active duty, your contribution needs to be $100 per month. You can also quality under VEAP (Veteran’s Educational Assistance Program). Once you have served and contributed the minimum to qualify, you are eligible to apply for benefits through the VA. Your initial application may take as long as 10 weeks, so allowing for enough time is critical.

Everyone’s life path is different – so while some soldiers look to enroll as soon as they are no longer serving, some may have other plans in mind. The GI Bill protects these plans as well, as veterans have 15 years to apply for benefits after their most recent period of active duty. Once your application is submitted, your benefits will cover up to your first 36 months of school.

There are so many options when expanding an education. Some higher learning institutions pride themselves on working with military personnel and veterans. St. Bonaventure University in New York boasts a strong ROTC program – but it also makes it easy for active personnel to put a degree on hold to serve overseas.  Columbia Southern University in Alabama boasts an extensive selection of online degree programs as well as open enrollment, catering to the hectic schedules and unpredictable nature of military scheduling.

Colorado State University has a devoted team of advisors dedicated to assisting military personnel and veterans. So much that they even have a special “Military and Veteran Student Visit Day” next month. Drexel, in Philadelphia, PA, has a unbeatable online degree and course offering. Don’t forget to check out Touro University Worldwide – an online program that makes obtaining a degree easier for those of us who need to move around.

Between the GI Benefits and the institutions who are actively trying to work with veterans, now is a fantastic time to start a pursuit of a degree!

Limiting GI Bill Transfer Plan – Is It Fair?

Limiting GI Bill Transfer Plan – Is It Fair

Limiting GI Bill Transfer Plan – Is It Fair?

By Debbie Gregory.

 

The Defense Department’s new rules on transferring GI Bill benefits to dependents have House members demanding a reversal to the plan, with 83 lawmakers calling the new policy  “unacceptable.”

Last month, the Pentagon said it was curbing the window in which service members could transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to immediate family members.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn) who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, led the bipartisan effort to rally members of Congress in opposition.

Previously, military members could transfer benefits at any time, as long as they had at least six years of service. Under the new rules, set to take effect next July, they will need to not only meet the six-year benchmark, but also be approved to serve four additional years and to have completed fewer than 16 years of service.

The lawmakers penned a letter to defense Secretary James Mattis late last month, saying “Eliminating the ability to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to family members after honorably completing 16 years of service sends exactly the wrong message to those who have chosen the military as their long-term career, and sets a dangerous precedent for the removal of other critical benefits as members approach military retirement.”

They continued, “Once a service member meets the requirements for transferring Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to an eligible family member, we must uphold our end of the commitment. This change in policy is unacceptable, and we call upon you to swiftly reverse this decision.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the American Legion have joined in, criticizing the change.

The American Legion opposes “the curtailment of veterans’ earned benefits,” said Legion spokesman retired Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler. “We understand the minimum time-in-service for transferability eligibility, and that makes sense from a retention perspective, but the 16-year transfer or lose rule makes no sense to us as DOD has articulated it and disadvantages the veteran when it comes to the use of this earned benefit,” Plenzler said.

The Pentagon says more than $20 billion in education benefits has been passed to service members and dependents since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was passed in 2009.

 

IRRRL Facts for Veterans

homeowner

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is often praised for the education benefits given to those who have served. But just as important, the VA strives to help servicemembers, veterans, and eligible surviving spouses obtain veteran home loans so that they may become homeowners.

An Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan (IRRRL), often referred to as a “Streamline” or a “VA to VA” loan is a great option for providing veteran home loans.

A VA veteran loan provides a home loan guaranty benefit and other housing related programs to help buy, build, repair, retain, or adapt a home for personal occupancy. These loans are obtained through private lenders such as banks and mortgage companies. The VA guarantees a portion of the loan, enabling the lender to provide more favorable terms.

Except when refinancing an existing VA guaranteed adjustable rate mortgage to a fixed rate, it must result in a lower interest rate. When refinancing from an existing adjustable veteran home loan to a fixed rate, the interest rate may increase.

To decide whether it is beneficial to refinance your veteran home loan, the general rule of thumb is that if you can refinance and reduce your interest rate by 1% then it is something worth considering. However, it’s important to consider other factors, such as closing costs and how long you plan on living in the property.

An IRRRL may be done with “no money out of pocket” by including all costs in the new loan or by making the new loan at an interest rate high enough to enable the lender to pay the costs, but you must NOT receive any cash from the loan proceeds.

The occupancy requirement for an IRRRL is different from other VA veteran home loans. When you originally got your VA loan, you certified that you occupied or intended to occupy the home. For an IRRRL you need only certify that you previously occupied it. The loan may not exceed the sum of the outstanding balance on the existing VA loan, plus allowable fees and closing costs, including funding fee and up to two discount points.  You may also add up to $6,000 of energy efficiency improvements into the loan.

One more thing to keep in mind is that an IRRRL can only be made to refinance a property on which you have already used your VA loan eligibility. It must be a VA to VA refinance, and it will reuse the entitlement you originally used.

Lenders are not required to make you an IRRRL, however, the lender of your choice may process your application for an IRRRL, and you do not have to go to the lender you make your payments to now or to the lender from whom you originally obtained your VA Loan.

Also keep in mind that the ability to reduce the term of your loan from 30 years to 15 years can save you a lot of money in interest over the life of the loan, if the reduction in the interest rate is at least one percent lower. But this will more than likely result in a large increase in your monthly payment.

Veterans are strongly urged to contact several lenders. There may be big differences in the terms offered by the various lenders you contact.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Some of the Challenges Facing Student Veterans

student veteran

By Debbie Gregory.

Military veteran benefits such as the Montgomery GI Bill, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and now the Forever GI Bill, have enabled education for veterans by paying for expenses such as tuition, textbooks, and housing.

With those obstacles out of the way, there are still some challenges for veterans that are transitioning from the military to veteran education programs.

Gone is the military ranking system. Gone is the brotherhood. Gone is the sense of working towards the successful outcome of a shared mission. What remains, for most, is the drive towards personal, individual success, which may be confusing for some veteran students.

Additionally, since veteran students tend to be older than their civilian counterparts, they have not only had different life experiences, but they also have different life obligations, which may include spouses, children, mortgages, etc.

Another difference is that many veteran students have witnessed or experienced the horrors of war, and may be suffering from mental or physical issues.

So what can be done to support these students in order to improve their chances of success?

The VA Campus Toolkit offers tips on what faculty, staff, administrators and students can do to help veteran students.

A community site for veterans to gather on campus can empower students to share information, respond to one another’s needs, and relieve stress while providing a venue for veterans to discuss shared concerns.

Having a chapter of Student Veterans of America or a Veterans Resource Center on campus offers a safe haven for veteran students, without them having to overshare their veteran status.

Removing obstacles and red tape can go a long way towards student retention and in the reputation of your institution as a military-friendly campus.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Paychecks Reflecting 2018 Raise Going Out January 15th

pay day

By Debbie Gregory.

The first paychecks for servicemembers reflecting the 2.4 percent pay raise will be going out on January 15th. The raise is part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

This was only the second time since 2010 that the pay raise has topped 2 percent.  It was 2.1 percent last January.

The increase will put an additional $680 in the wallets of younger enlisted ranks, and about $1,080 a year for more senior enlisted and junior officers. Mid-career officers can expect almost $2,000 a year extra.

The 2.4 percent figure is also the mark mandated as the standard pay raise under federal law.

Government employee unions had argued for pay parity between the military and federal workers, but President Trump ordered an average raise of 1.4 percent, with an additional average of 0.5 percent adjusted in locality pay, for a total of a 1.9 percent pay increase for federal civilian employee, which was also effective January 1st.

The 2018 Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rate increase will see on average a .7 percent increase, but falls far short of the 2.9 percent that was proposed.

TRICARE Standard and Extra will become TRICARE Select, and there will be changes to copay amounts and pharmacy prices. But probably the biggest change in 2018 involves the military retirement system. The Blended Retirement System (BRS) blends a fixed pension system like the military has always had, with a user-contributory system, the Thrift Savings Plan.

Service members with less than 12 years active duty on Jan. 1, 2018 will have a limited time to decide if they want the new system or an older one. New military members will be automatically enrolled in the BRS.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.