The House of Representatives this week overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that would protect student veterans from being penalized for late GI Bill payments, a move that advocates say could have helped avoid some of the chaos of the past semester.
The bill now moves back to the Senate, which already passed a very similar version of the measure and is expected to consider the House bill in coming days.
Senate passage — and President Donald Trump’s signature — would mean an end to the late fees, dropped classes and other punishments school sometimes impose on veterans as a result of Veterans Affairs Department processing delays. If schools don’t agree to the new rules, they won’t be allowed to keep enrolling students using the GI Bill.
The legislation, known originally as the SIT-REP Act, passed the House Monday as part of a larger veterans policy package.
“Students should never be penalized for VA’s mistakes and payment delays,” said Lauren Augustine, vice president of government affairs for the nonprofit Student Veterans of America.
Passage of the measure, now as part of the Veterans Benefit and Transition Act, comes at the end of a tumultuous fall semester, during which thousands of veterans and military dependents using the GI Bill had to wait longer than normal for their tuition payments to come through. Such students also had to wait for their GI Bill housing stipends and find alternative ways to cover their rent and other living expenses, in addition to sometimes facing penalties from their schools.
Under the new rules, students will be able to show schools their VA certificate of eligibility as proof that payment is coming.
Some advocates were disappointed the legislation didn’t pass earlier this year to help these students. But better late than never.
“Ultimately, late (VA) payments can be a fact of life for some veterans,” said John Kamin, assistant director of the employment and education division at American Legion. “This last semester wasn’t the first time it happened, and it won’t be the last time.”
“We are very excited to see this finally come to fruition,” said Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director of policy and legislation for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization that has strongly advocated for the provisions in SIT-REP since the bill was introduced earlier this year. “We wish it would’ve been in place when things happened with the Forever GI Bill that weren’t so great, but clearly that was a sign that this needed to happen.”
Haycock said her organization has heard from multiple surviving family members using GI Bill benefits who have been charged late fees, denied access to campus facilities such as the library and dining hall, or barred from registering for classes when VA didn’t pay their tuition on time — even prior to this fall semester. In other cases, students were instructed to take out loans to cover the cost.
“They’re looking at it from a very black-and-white perspective,” Haycock said of schools, which can have strict payment deadlines that GI Bill students sometimes can’t meet, through no fault of their own. “Our veterans tend to fall in a gray area.”
It’s difficult to judge how common it is for schools to penalize students whose GI Bill payments don’t come in on time. In a recent Military Times survey of around 500 colleges and universities, the vast majority of colleges said they have special policies for students whose VA or Defense Department education benefits are delayed. In many cases, these policies protect students from incurring late fees or being dropped from classes for nonpayment.
But ultimately, Kamin said, “It doesn’t matter how few they are; every veteran is still entitled to these protections.”
The SIT-REP bill initially passed the House in May and had been stalled in the Senate until recently.
Amanda Maddox, a spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the senator was glad to see the House unanimously pass the legislation that includes what SIT-REP set out to accomplish.
“He was pleased that we were able to include the SIT-REP Act as a short-term way to address the impact of payment delays on student veterans, but we need to continue working with VA and with schools to ensure the VA can consistently make the payments to schools in a timely manner,” Maddox said in an email.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House veterans’ committee, where SIT-REP originated, said in a statement, “I am thankful the House quickly passed (the Veterans Benefit and Transition Act) and I look forward to the Senate passing, and the president signing, this legislation as soon as possible.”
(Capitol Hill Bureau Chief Leo Shane contributed to this report.)