If your transition assistance program was anything like the one I went through, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) representative who went over Vocational Rehabilitation made it sound like the last thing you might want to qualify for. After serving as a VA School Certifying Official (SCO), I learned what the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program (generally just called “Voc Rehab” or, in VA terminology, Chapter 31) is really all about and it is a great program. However, just like every other VA education benefit, there are some pros and cons you need to consider before you decide if this is the VA education program that best suits you.
Voc Rehab, as I will refer to it for the rest of this post, is a comprehensive program for veterans with service-connected disabilities, specifically those with a minimum 10% disability rating from the VA. It is comprised of a mix of tools necessary to obtain employment, as defined by the veteran’s Voc Rehab counselor. The tools can include: education, counseling, employment placement services, other “work readiness assistance,” and potentially even necessary medical and dental referrals. Its primary objective is to help veterans find and maintain employment and this is a key difference between this and other VA education programs. (Note: Veterans who are unemployable due to their injuries may also be able to qualify for some aspects of Voc Rehab designed to improve their quality of life.)
Since the services available depend greatly on the individual veteran’s needs and since this week’s posts are about education, I am going to focus this post on the education piece of Voc Rehab. Details about the entire Voc Rehab program can be found on the VA's benefit site.
So, what are some of the pros and cons of the Voc Rehab education benefit?
- 48 instead of 36 - While most VA education benefits only offer 36 months of benefits, Voc Rehab can pay up to 48 months of benefits. How many months you actually get is entirely dependent on the rehabilitation plan you and your Voc Rehab counselor come up with.
- Full tuition and fees and books – The Post-9/11 GI Bill now caps tuition and fees at the maximum in state rate for the state in which your school is located (and you have to find a way to pay the difference) and only pays a maximum $1000 yearly book stipend. Benefits, such as the traditional MGIB, don’t pay for any tuition and fees or books at all. Voc Rehab, however, pays for all of the tuition, fees, and books required for your degree plan. This includes private colleges and out-of-state fees, if necessary.
- Consumables and supplies – As if tuition, fees, and books weren’t enough, Voc Rehab can also cover up to $40 worth of “consumables” a term – those are things like pencils, paper, Scantron sheets, and other items that you will use up during a term. Additionally, Voc Rehab can (it doesn’t have to, but it can and often does) pay for other items required for your degree. For example, if you want to be a nurse, Voc Rehab could potentially pay for: the cost of the TEAS test (that’s a test common for nursing programs that costs about $50 each time you take it), a background check, scrubs, a stethoscope, or any other item that may be required to complete that degree.
- Tutoring – Voc Rehab’s primary goal is to give you the tools to successfully complete your degree program and find gainful employment. If you are struggling with a subject, they can pay a tutor to help you pass that subject.
- Other than dishonorable – Just because someone served in the military doesn’t always make them eligible for VA benefits of any kind. Anything less than an honorable discharge can limit anything from whether you can get VA medical care to whether your service counts for Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility. In this instance, Voc Rehab is one of the most flexible, as it is potentially available to anyone with an “other than dishonorable” discharge.
So far, Voc Rehab sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? It is but all those extra goodies also come with extra strings so, read on.
- Hoops to jump through – Getting other VA education benefits is a pretty simple process – you serve your country, you earn your benefit, you apply to use it, you use it. Voc Rehab is not nearly so simple. The first step in the process is meeting with a Voc Rehab counselor, who will determine whether you meet the basic eligibility requirements. If you do, you will be given a long checklist to complete before VA makes a final determination on whether you get to participate. This checklist includes: aptitude testing to determine which careerfields might suit you, then determining which of those aren’t going to aggravate your disability, researching that careerfield to make sure that there are actually employment opportunities available, meeting with an academic advisor to determine what the degree program entails, and then going back to your Voc Rehab counselor to finalize your plan and getting a VA Voc Rehab Authorization Form (VA 28-1905) that can be taken to your school.
- Permission to... – While other VA education benefits allow you to change your degree program or courseload at will, your Voc Rehab counselor will have to approve any and all changes you make to that original plan you two designed. You will meet with him/her once every term to go over your progress and your plan (including course choices) for the upcoming term and then you will need to be in contact with him/her any time there’s a change – you withdraw from a class, a class got cancelled and you had to find another one, you want to take a class that isn’t in your degree program. Your counselor gets final say. He/she even gets to determine if you get to continue in Voc Rehab (for example if you failed a couple of classes) or if you are out of the program.
- VA controls your end date – Although you could qualify for up to 48 months of Voc Rehab education benefits, VA gets to decide how many you actually need to gain employment. If you use another VA program, Post-9/11 for example, you could use 24 months to complete a business degree, then use the final 12 months to also get an accounting degree. If Voc Rehab decides you only need 24 months to finish a business degree and they don’t think accounting is relevant, then you only get 24 months.
- Minimal stipend – The final drawback of Voc Rehab is that, since it pays so much towards your other costs, the stipend you get isn’t all that great. At the 2012 rates (I’m using those because those are the ones on VA’s page at the moment), a Voc Rehab student with no dependents and attending undergraduate school full time would receive $585.11 a month. If you have dependents, then the rate goes up (one dependent - $725.78, two - $855.28, three or more - $62.34 for each additional dependent above two). Similar to the MGIB, the rate is prorated based on number of credits you take and you must be attending at least half time to get any housing.
There is one exception to this stipend rule and it’s a big one. Under Public Law 111-377, if you qualify for both Post-9/11 GI Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation and you elect to use Voc Rehab, you may do so at the Post-9/11 housing rate. Keep in mind, you have to choose this option (your Voc Rehab counselor will have you complete a form electing the Post-9/11 housing rate) and, if you do so, you may be subject to the same Post-9/11 housing rules. Meaning, if you are taking all online or online and hybrid classes, you may only get $714.20 a month, so this option may only be a good one if you are attending classes on campus (check with your voc rehab counselor to see if this requirement is in effect, since VA changes its rules often). Something else to keep in mind, if you started using Post-9/11 and then got accepted into Voc Rehab, you must have at least one day of Post-9/11 eligibility left in order to be able to qualify for this. (Details about Voc Rehab stipend amounts can be found at Here.)
Okay, as if that wasn’t enough to scramble your brain, let me leave you with a couple of last facts about Voc Rehab:
- Eligibility period – Generally, VA education benefits have what’s called a “delimiting date.” This is the time you have to use the benefit. For traditional MGIB, it’s 10 years from your date of separation from active duty. For Post-9/11, it’s 15 years from your date of separation. For Voc Rehab, it is generally 12 years from your date of separation or from the date you were first notified of your VA disability rating. While the delimiting dates for other VA education programs are hard and fast, they tend to be a tad more flexible with Voc Rehab, especially if the veteran can demonstrate that a service-connected condition has caused a serious employment handicap.
- The 28-1905 and your SCO – One of the mistakes that I saw many Voc Rehab veterans make was assuming that, because Voc Rehab was supposed to pay for their tuition and fees, they didn’t have to do anything. Sadly, there is no magic VA fairy. Instead, it is the student’s responsibility to get in touch with the school’s SCO to be sure that he/she received the VA Form 28-1905 Authorization for Vocational Rehabilitation and that it has been entered into the school’s system. Failure to make contact with your SCO could mean that you aren’t going to get paid, your tuition and fees aren’t going to get paid and, possibly, you are going to get dropped out of your classes entirely.
As with all the VA education programs, what I’ve presented here is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have more questions, your first step should be to call a Voc Rehab counselor (the one closest to you can be found at the link I provided at the beginning of this post) or contact your school’s SCO.
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