Last year, about 8,000 veterans got a message in their inboxes telling them they may qualify for a new law that restores education benefits to GI Bill users whose schools have abruptly closed.
Nine months later, Veterans Affairs Department officials are trying to figure out why fewer than 20 percent have applied — and whether there’s cause for concern.
“We thought that we’ve been doing a good job of getting the word out,” said Charmain Bogue, deputy director of operations for education service in the department’s Veterans Benefits Administration. “I feel like we don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle yet to say this was a success or this wasn’t a success.”
Her team’s efforts have also included outreach via social media and snail mail, yielding 1,500 total applications since last August, when the Forever GI Bill restored education benefits to qualifying students of shuttered schools. The provision retroactively applies to school closures since 2015, including those of the large for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, as well as about 10 other schools that left thousands of veterans in the lurch.
Bogue said the VA contacted all students who attended those schools in the year they closed, but it’s likely that not all 8,000 would qualify. Some may have graduated that year or transferred credits to a comparable degree program. In those cases, students would not be eligible to get their GI Bill benefits restored.
Her office recently launched a closer review of about 400 cases, hoping the sample can give officials better insight into the population they’re trying to reach. If a specific reason for not applying, like a successful transfer, isn’t obvious from a veteran’s file, VA representatives will call to find out why he or she has not applied and what the department could be doing better to get the message out.
“We think that will be a good indicator of the remaining people that didn’t apply,” Bogue said.
Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, is grateful for the VA’s efforts, but concerned about the response rate. She said some veterans may not be applying simply because they’re not opening mail from the department — or they may even think the information is too good to be true.
“Veterans organizations and members of Congress worked so hard to get GI Bill reinstated for the veterans who had been defrauded by ITT Tech and Corinthian, and it’s terrible if we’re not succeeding in reaching them and helping them get their GI Bill back,” she said.
If the application process is a barrier, she said Veterans Education Success has staff members who can help veterans complete the form to get their benefits restored.
Since starting its outreach efforts, the VA has processed around 1,300 applications for a total of 9,300 months of GI Bill entitlement, Bogue said.
“(The focus) is now, what’s the reason why the remaining folks didn’t respond,” she said. “And that’s what we’re trying to get to.”
Meanwhile, the law isn’t going anywhere, and there’s no deadline, she said. Veterans who think they may qualify can apply to have their benefits restored at any time.