Veterans' Education Benefits:

Enhanced Guidance and Collaboration Could Improve Administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill Program

GAO-11-356R: Published: May 5, 2011. Publicly Released: May 5, 2011.

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With the passage of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (Post- 9/11 GI Bill), Congress created a comprehensive education benefit program for veterans, service members, and their dependents pursuing postsecondary education. Since implementation, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has provided just over $5.7 billion for the Post-9/11 GI Bill to fund education expenses for about 381,000 veterans, service members, and their dependents through fiscal year 2010, and estimates it will provide almost $8 billion in fiscal year 2011--an amount that would represent about 71 percent of all expected costs for education benefits. From the passage of the law to August 1, 2009, the start of the first semester in which funds were available, VA had about 13 months to implement the program. The Post-9/11 GI Bill program is substantially different from previously authorized VA education benefits or GI Bill programs that characteristically provide monthly payments to eligible claimants. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, by contrast, includes a more complex payment system that channels funds to both students and schools. GAO and VA have reported on various challenges VA faced when implementing the new program, including claims processing delays. We were asked to review the progress of the program's implementation and answer the following questions: (1) What were VA's implementation challenges, the steps taken to address them, and any unintended consequences? (2) To what extent has VA met its timeliness and accuracy goals for processing Post-9/11 GI Bill claims and been responsive to call center inquiries? (3) What processes, if any, can VA adopt from the Department of Education's administration of student aid programs to improve its administration of Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits?

VA faced several challenges in implementing the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, including inadequate information systems, staffing, and program guidance. For instance, some schools told us that a lack of critical program information, such as information about students' eligibility levels and how payments were determined, affected their ability to timely and accurately process program benefits. Although VA took steps to address these challenges, many remain, and VA experienced a number of unintended consequences such as emergency payments made to ineligible recipients, increased use of overtime, and diverting staff from processing other types of benefit claims. VA has met some of its timeliness and accuracy performance goals for processing Post-9/11 GI Bill claims and responding to Education Call Center inquiries, but delays continue to occur during peak processing times. Although VA has met its accuracy targets for education benefit claims, the amount of improper payments for education benefits has significantly increased. VA officials have attributed the increase, in part, to the higher level of education benefit paid under the new program relative to VA's other education benefit programs, as well as the fact that some payments--such as tuition and fees--are paid up front before courses have been completed. Some of Education's practices for administering federal student aid may improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program such as providing program information including eligibility and benefit levels, streamlining how funds are returned, and reconciling payment differences. Leading up to program implementation, VA officials conferred with Education officials on a limited basis to learn more about Education's systems and processes for student aid delivery. However, VA did not continue its coordination with Education because of the limited applicability of Education's systems and processes, according to VA officials. To improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program and address ongoing challenges, we recommend that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs take the following two actions: (1) Take steps to provide for schools to receive more critical program information such as a student's eligibility for benefits or how payments have been calculated, for example, to enable certifying officials, financial aid officials, and business office administrators to effectively administer the program and deliver benefits. (2) Collaborate with the Department of Education and the higher education community, leveraging their experiences in administering aid. These collaborations should include assessing the applicability and viability of adopting processes and actions taken by the Department of Education, where practical, such as returning overpayments of program funds or reconciling benefit payments.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program and address ongoing challenges, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should take steps to provide for schools to receive more critical program information such as a student's eligibility for benefits or how payments have been calculated, for example, to enable certifying officials, financial aid officials, and business office administrators to effectively administer the program and deliver benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs concurred with our recommendation and has distributed an official handbook for school certifying officials that provides guidance on standard benefit program reporting processes. In addition, the Department has added benefit program and calculation information to the Post-9/11 GI Bill Web site.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program and address ongoing challenges, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should collaborate with the Department of Education and the higher education community, leveraging their experiences in administering aid. These collaborations should include assessing the applicability and viability of adopting processes and actions taken by the Department of Education, where practical, such as returning overpayments of program funds or reconciling benefit payments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) met with Department of Education (Education) officials on several occasions to discuss the processes used by each agency to deliver and recoup funds issued for educational assistance. It was determined that existing statutory and technical differences prevent VA from adopting certain Education processes which have been deemed effective in administering federal student assistance.

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