Local institutions say no problems with veterans’ tuition payments

Staff and wire reports

Although many universities and colleges are still waiting for tuition payments for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attended school last fall under the new GI Bill, representatives of local institutions say they’re not having a problem.

The Veterans Affairs Department says the number of veterans with claims unprocessed is now fewer than 5,000 — down from tens of thousands — and the goal is to have them all processed by the end of the year. Veterans who haven’t received their payments have been reported to be having problems with paying living expenses and enrolling for the spring semester.

Eastern New Mexico University President Steven Gamble said few veterans at the university were receiving their payments late in the semester.

“In terms of paperwork confusion,” Gamble said, “we only had two recipients that were actually having trouble getting their money, but they were taken care of.”

Gamble said the situation is no different from any other semester.

“The university has an extended payment plan where we understand the money is coming in. It’s just getting here late,” he said. “We don’t hassle them; we just extend the period of time they have to pay us.”

ENMU has 145 people receiving the GI Bill.

At Clovis Community College, Michelle Schmidt, dean of student services, said her staff has not received any complaints about slowness of receiving benefits.

James Smith, VA benefits specialist at the college, said money is available and military students have been accessing it.

However, veterans in other parts of the country are having a more difficult time.

Clay Hunt, a former Marine corporal who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, attends Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He said he and his wife have racked up about $4,000 in credit card debt because his university won’t release student loans he needs for living expenses until tuition is fully paid.

“I’m very disappointed about the way it was implemented,” Hunt, 27, said. “I feel like the VA had ample time to figure out how they were going to disperse these payments and make sure this transition to the new GI Bill went smoothly, and they definitely failed to do that.”

Tom Tarantino, legislative associate for New York-based veterans service organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he talked to one veteran who graduated but hasn’t been allowed to get his diploma because the tuition hasn’t been paid. Others weren’t allowed to enroll for the spring semester, he said.

“The next semester is going to be a mess. Straight up,” Tarantino said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be as bad as this semester was, but it is going to be ugly.”

The VA has issued $3,000 emergency checks to more than 68,000 veterans, but for some the money’s run out.

Keith M. Wilson, director of the VA’s Office of Education Service, told a congressional panel on Dec. 3 that the agency is using “brute force” to get claims processed. The VA expects to have all claims received by Jan. 15 paid by Feb. 1.

Officials at Mesalands Community College were unavailable for comment.