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VFW ACTION SPARKS LEGISLATION TO BETTER SERVE STUDENT-VETERANS

Quality education for veterans is a high priority.

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The morning of March 20, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced the "GI Education Equity Act of 2012," a bipartisan bill to help ensure student-veterans have access to quality educational counseling before tapping into their G.I. Bill benefits, and a clear method of recourse should student-veterans feel they have become victims of fraud, waste or abuse.

The bill reflects the two main tenets of a letter VFW sent to House, Senate and Obama Administration leadership, calling for improved consumer education and recourse mechanisms for student-veterans, and signed by a diverse coalition of veterans' education stakeholders, including veterans' advocates and both for-profit and non-profit education advocates. Read Lautenberg's bill. Read the coalition letter.

“The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill could be the transformative benefit for today’s service members and veterans, but the VFW believes that we must ensure that our veterans have all the tools they need to succeed in higher education. This bill will do just that,” said VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace in a statement issued by Lautenberg's office. “Through just a few simple steps, we can ensure that student-veterans are armed with the best information to make an academic choice, and that they can take action when a school doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain. This bipartisan bill presents some common sense, easy-to-implement solutions that will help our student-veterans succeed in higher education without restricting their choice of schools or placing unreasonable burdens on campuses that open their doors to student-veterans.”

After a recent Senate investigation implied waste within the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, and both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees offered several proposals to scale back the benefit, the VFW sought to learn more about how veterans were making their educational decisions. All indicators led VFW to conclude that veterans were never properly informed of their benefits, despite programs within DOD and VA designed to do just that.

Under Chapter 36 of the G.I. Bill, VA is obligated to make educational and vocational counseling available to service members, potential student-veterans, and dependents eligible for any chapter of the G.I. Bill. Unfortunately, very few student-veterans are aware that this benefit exists, and even fewer choose to take advantage of it. In its current form, veterans must first discover that such counseling is available, fill out the requisite paperwork, mail it to their nearest VA regional office and wait for a response. This labor-intensive “opt-in” process resulted in only 6,400 veterans receiving counseling in 2011, compared to more than 800,000 veterans utilizing G.I. Bill benefits.

Lautenberg's bill mandates that VA actively contact veterans eligible for G.I. Bill counseling, asking those who wish to waive the benefit to “opt-out.” On the back end, VA must leverage its resources to create a formal, complaint process to address student-veteran issues, allowing VA and other agencies responsible for student-veteran programs to take action and audit findings. The legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Scott Brown, R-Mass., Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

Lautenberg's bill is similar to a House bill recently introduced by Rep. Gus Bilrakis, R-Fla., the "Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012," which VFW supported in testimony before the House last week. Bilrakis' bill orders VA to develop a plan to deliver comprehensive consumer education and formally track complaints. Lautenberg's bill lays out how the Senate wants VA to deliver such counseling. Read VFW's testimony. Read Bilrakis' bill.

The VFW hopes both bills will gain momentum in their respective chambers, resulting in a responsible compromise piece of legislation that will help student-veterans make a responsible choice in higher education without limiting access to certain kinds of schools or placing new administrative burdens on academic institutions.

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