VA Education Benefits:

Actions Taken, but Outreach and Oversight Could Be Improved

GAO-11-256: Published: Feb 28, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2011.

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provided $9 billion in education benefits to service-members and veterans in fiscal year 2010, mostly through the new Post-9/11 GI Bill. In providing education benefits, VA relies on State Approving Agencies (SAA) to approve schools; and on schools to report students' enrollment status. GAO was asked to determine: (1) what is known about the effectiveness of outreach to and support for individuals applying for VA education benefits, particularly those with disabilities; (2) the role of school officials and challenges they face in their role; and (3) how VA monitors and oversees states' and schools' implementation of these benefits. GAO reviewed VA reports and plans, conducted a nationally representative survey of school officials, interviewed VA and state officials in four states, and reviewed recent statutory changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

VA has various activities to reach out to and support individuals who are eligible for education benefits. For example, VA reaches eligible servicemembers through military separation briefings and has sponsored national marketing campaigns for the new Post-9/11 GI Bill. General awareness of VA education benefits among servicemembers and veterans is high, according to program stakeholders. In fiscal year 2010, more than 700,000 individuals were served by these programs. However, stakeholders also identified some limitations with VA's outreach and support. For instance, veterans' service organizations and school officials stated that some servicemembers and veterans may have difficulty determining which of VA's various programs may be right for them. In addition, VA primarily targets its outreach and support for its education benefits to the general population of servicemembers and veterans, not necessarily those with disabilities, because eligibility is based on length of military service and not disability status. Finally, little is known about the effectiveness of VA's outreach and support because VA has not established performance measures for these activities. School certifying officials' core responsibilities--primarily certifying student enrollment to VA and reporting enrollment changes--have become more complex under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and officials identified challenges such as obtaining timely, comprehensive policy guidance and training from VA. For example, school officials must determine the tuition and fees that the Post-9/11 GI Bill will cover, which varies based on the length of active-duty military service and other factors. In our survey, school officials reported performing roles beyond those specifically required by VA, such as helping students apply for benefits. Although the majority of school officials were generally satisfied with VA's implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they cited a range of challenges, such as the lack of a Post-9/11 GI Bill policy manual. In addition, although VA provides training through conferences and its Web site, many officials did not participate due to other job responsibilities, travel costs, and lack of awareness about training opportunities. VA lacks comprehensive information on the effectiveness of its oversight of SAAs and schools. VA monitors SAAs, in part, by reviewing reports on the number of approved schools and completed site visits, but this approach has limitations. For example, VA has not set minimum standards for SAAs' reviews of student files during their site visits to schools and, therefore, lacks assurance that data collected from these file reviews are valid and comparable. Also, VA has not completed its own required school audits in recent years. Most recently, VA suspended its audits during fiscal year 2010 in order to reassign compliance staff to help process a backlog of Post-9/11 GI Bill claims. Although VA has resumed its audits, there are indications that it may not be able to complete all required audits in fiscal year 2011. Moreover, VA does not compile and review findings from its own or other entities' audits of schools that would, going forward, allow it to identify trends and better target its oversight of schools. GAO recommends that VA establish outcome-oriented performance measures for outreach and support activities; improve communication with school officials; and undertake a systematic review of its oversight of SAAs and schools. VA concurred with four recommendations and concurred in principle with one recommendation aimed at strengthening oversight. VA noted a number of actions already taken in this area. GAO encourages VA to address all aspects of this recommendation moving forward.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2014, VA reported that it began sending email messages about GI Bill benefits to servicemembers and veterans, at certain points in their career or triggered by life events. VA is able to track the percentage of these messages that are delivered and opened and how many recipients click through to the GI Bill website. According to VA, it has sent 6,500 emails so far and achieved a 42-percent open rate and a 5-percent click-through rate. VA will use these data as the baseline for its monthly GI Bill emails going forward. In addition, VA reported that it will be able to use these data to determine how many of these servicemembers and veterans utilize their education benefits.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's outreach and support for eligible servicemembers and veterans, communication with school officials, and oversight of its education benefit programs, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should develop outcome-oriented performance measures for outreach to servicemembers and veterans who are seeking VA education benefits. This could include measures of VA's success in reaching out to target populations, including servicemembers and veterans with disabilities, and in addressing areas where more information about education benefits may be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA has established national performance standards for its Education Call Center staff and, in April 2013, VA reported that the standards have been issued to its field offices. These performance standards include five elements, including elements for quality and timeliness. For example, according to the performance standards, VA will review a 5 percent sample of each employee's calls per month and assess whether they are providing complete and accurate information to callers. In addition, there is a client contact management element, which states that employees will provide good customer service but will also control the length of phone calls and keep in mind that undue delays cause long hold times for waiting callers. Staff are expected to complete calls in 8 to 9 minutes. There is another performance element for Right Now Web service. This element states that employees, when assigned to answer Right Now Web inquiries, must complete an average of at least four inquiries per hour. While this addresses the timeliness of Right Now Web inquiries, it does not address quality. We urge VA, in moving forward, to measure the quality of Right Now Web inquiries. Measuring the quality of responses to Right Now Web inquiries, such as by monthly reviewing a sample of responses for accuracy, could help VA achieve greater balance among its performance standards and ensure that staff are not sacrificing quality in order to meet timeliness standards.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's outreach and support for eligible servicemembers and veterans, communication with school officials, and oversight of its education benefit programs, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should establish performance measures for the quality of information provided by VA's toll-free hotline and for the timeliness and quality of its Right Now Web service.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On June 3, 2011, VA issued a School Certifying Officials Handbook which serves as the comprehensive standardized school certifying officials' manual for all VA education benefits. The handbook is posted on VA's GI Bill website, on the School Resources page. The handbook includes information on recent legislative changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and supersedes any locally produced VA material regarding VA education benefits (such as policy handbooks created by VA regional processing offices). VA plans to update the handbook as needed. In addition, the School Resource page of VA's GI Bill website includes a news section. School certifying officials and others can subscribe to be notified when this news section is updated.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's outreach and support for eligible servicemembers and veterans, communication with school officials, and oversight of its education benefit programs, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should provide more timely, accessible, and comprehensive education program policy information. This could include developing and maintaining an online policy manual for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and providing e-mail updates to school certifying officials nationwide.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On June 22, 2011, VA announced changes to its website to help school certifying officials find key information. The GI Bill website now has a School Resources page for news, training and other resources specifically for schools. For example, the website has information on online training as well as upcoming conferences for school certifying officials. The website also includes a link to a report on ways that schools can accommodate student veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, VA is working on a series of informational training videos for school certifying officials which will be included on the School Resources page of the GI Bill website. VA expects to release the first of these videos in fall 2011.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's outreach and support for eligible servicemembers and veterans, communication with school officials, and oversight of its education benefit programs, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should increase efforts to make school certifying officials aware of available training opportunities, including VA's online training module, and consider providing information for school certifying officials on working with servicemembers and veterans with disabilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: With respect to the role of State Approving Agencies (SAA), VA submitted recommended legislative changes to the SAAs' activities that Congress enacted as part of Public Law 111-377. These changes, effective August 1, 2011, allow VA to rely on accreditations already in place by the Department of Education, freeing up SAA staff to assist VA staff with outreach, training, and oversight of schools. In addition, VA contracted for an independent assessment of SAAs' activities. In terms of VA oversight of schools, VA compared its available resources (including VA and SAA staff) against statutory requirements and determined that it has appropriate resources for oversight and compliance. VA also reported that it has begun using a risk-based approach to its fiscal year 2012 oversight activities by prioritizing compliance visits at for-profit institutions and schools with more than 300 veterans. However, VA noted that its fiscal year 2012 compliance goals may be impacted by delays in getting security clearances and required training for SAA staff, as well as the additional complexity of conducting compliance visits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Regarding oversight of foreign schools, VA has not yet conducted compliance visits of foreign schools, but intends to complete compliance reviews remotely in fiscal year 2013. The schools will mail VA the required documentation, and VA expects this approach will require one full-time equivalent staff member and a dedicated telephone line. Finally, VA noted that it reviews monthly reports that VA and SAA staff submit on the results of their compliance activities, which include face-to-face interviews with veterans at for-profit schools. VA has also mandated monthly reports to analyze program withdrawals and suspensions made by SAAs. In addition, pursuant to Executive Order 13607 which instructs the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to submit a plan to the president to strengthen enforcement and compliance mechanisms for schools serving service members, veterans, and their family members, VA reported that it has collaborated with the Department of Defense to produce two 90-day progress reports that are pending submission to the president, as of September 2012.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's outreach and support for eligible servicemembers and veterans, communication with school officials, and oversight of its education benefit programs, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should undertake a systematic review of VA's and SAAs' oversight of schools, focusing on opportunities to improve resource allocation, adopt risk-based approaches, consider cost-effective ways to oversee foreign schools, and evaluate the results of its oversight activities on a routine basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs


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