Who Ya Gonna Call?

Yesterday I talked about several things that the GI Bill doesn’t pay for. But what happens if VA doesn’t pay for something it’s supposed to? What then? Despite my little 80s flashback above, Ghostbusters isn’t the answer. Today, I’ll tell you the best way to get these kinds of issues resolved and what information you should have to get it resolved quickly.

First, though, let me just say that the time to start asking questions isn’t when your electric has been cut off because VA didn’t pay your housing allowance for three months or when you’ve racked up thousands of dollars in debt to your college because VA didn’t pay all the tuition and fees you thought it should have. When you think someone else is footing the bill, it’s easy to get into a passive mindset and assume (and we all know how bad that word is) that everything is going like it is supposed to – that is dangerous.

Before you start using your VA education benefit, you should know what will and won’t be covered (my posts on each benefit are a good place to start). There may be surprises and things might change (Uncle Sam is a big fan of changing the rules midstream), but you should have a good idea of what the benefit covers before you sign up for your first class and then you should monitor what VA pays out each term – both housing and, if applicable, for tuition and fees and books – to make sure that you’re getting what you’re supposed to. If you aren’t, then you need to take the following steps:

1) Talk to your School Certifying Official: An SCO, sometimes called a veterans representative or something similar, is an employee of the school you are attending who is responsible for certifying your benefits to the VA. Now, VA officially says that SCOs aren’t required to help you with pay issues. However, I always helped my students, and most other SCOs help theirs for several reasons:

- First, I cared about my students and, generally, the issues were easy to resolve. More often than not, in fact, the answer wasn’t that VA hadn’t paid, it was that the students misunderstood their benefits or forgot that, if school didn’t start until August 7th, they weren’t going to get paid for the first six days of August, and that’s why their housing was less than expected. That would take me 30 seconds to answer, as opposed to the hours or days it might take for the VA to explain it.

- Second, if there was a mistake, it was probably made at my level. “Certifying” is basically like creating a bill for the VA, telling them what they should pay the school and what they should pay the student. If there is an error, there’s a good chance it was in the creation of that “bill” aka certification. It happens – most SCOs have between 150 and several thousand students and, with as complicated as the system is, mistakes are inevitable. If I forgot to tell the VA what to pay, it wasn’t getting paid, so coming to me meant I might be able to discover the mistake and fix it with the least amount of time and effort for all involved.

- Third, I was the one with the clearest picture. VA isn’t real great at speaking higher education and higher ed isn’t always good at speaking VA. I could speak both and I could not only see what was submitted to the VA, I could also look at the student’s school file – their grades, their class schedule, and their tuition and fee charges. With all of that information, I could usually isolate the problem faster than either the student or the VA, since they each only have part of the picture.

- Fourth, an SCO has avenues to get answers. Just like with most things, there is a chain of command, and an SCO has a higher up in VA education she can reach out to if there are questions she (and/or the call center) can’t answer. And, since we can answer so many questions at our level, these higher ups know that, when we contact them, it’s with a real issue not just, as in the example I gave earlier, that a student forgot they weren’t getting paid for the first six days of August.

- And, lastly, as an employee of the school, I had a vested interest in making sure the students came back and that their bills got paid. The last thing the school needed was a student ending up with unpaid tuition at the end of the term. Not only could they not register for future terms (that was the rule at my college, other schools may have different rules), but if VA was supposed to pay the tuition and fees and didn’t, chances are the student couldn’t pay them either and the school would be left holding the bag.

So, even though VA doesn’t require them to help you, many will and many will be able to provide more information in a shorter time period than the VA.

2) VA Education Line: Students may often joke that they’ll graduate before they get an answer from the call center but it’s really not that bad, especially if you call the right line. By that I mean, don’t call the general VA call center, call the education line – they are the ones who should be able to answer your question. In order to get a better answer from the VA Education Line, you need to be sure you’re asking the right questions. (Yet another good reason to go to your SCO first!).

- Here’s an example of a bad question: “Why didn’t I get paid?”

- Here’s an example of a better question: “I’m a Post-9/11 student at XX college. I received my letter from VA on January 25th showing that my school certified me on January 16th for the term that started January 3rd. However, it’s now February 15th and I didn’t receive my housing allowance February 1st or my book stipend. Could you tell me why that is?”

VA’s system isn’t always easy to sort through and, especially if this isn’t your first term, the call center is going to need to know which term you are talking about and which part of “getting paid” you are referring to.

3) GI Bill Feedback System: This new “feedback” system (really complaint system) was set up by VA so students could report gross abuses, such as false advertising, by schools in order to help catch some of the schools who are completely taking advantage of veterans. It isn’t really there to handle pay issues but, it could be used if you’ve tried everything else and you have a serious issue concerning your educational benefits, not just a one time “It’s Jan 2nd and I was supposed to be paid on the first” kind of thing. Also, the first thing the VA will do once you submit “feedback” is go to the school to get an answer. Which is why, again, it’s best to go to your SCO first.

Before you use any of these resources, be sure that you have all your information together so you can ask the right questions and, if need be, prove your side of things. When I joined the military, my mother told me to save every single piece of paper. I did and I can’t tell you how many times that piece of advice has come in handy. I recommend student veterans do the same (I keep a binder with all my own Post-9/11 documents in them) and here’s a list of the documents you should have:

  • Your initial application for education benefits
  • Your letter of eligibility that shows that you qualify for the benefit you applied for
  • A copy of any school documents for starting your benefits – such as a tuition deferment or request for certification
  • The letter VA sends you each term showing what the school certified you for
  • Any other correspondence from VA about changes to VA education programs or about overpayments or debt management agreements
  • A printout from eBenefits showing what you actually got paid/what got paid to the school on your behalf
  • A copy of your degree audit (that’s a list of all courses you need to take to graduate) – I recommend printing a new one each term after your grades post, so you have a record of your progress
  • A copy of your unofficial transcripts and/or grades for each term
  • Documents on any other financial aid you are supposed to be receiving
  • Any bills from the college stating what is owed or has been paid on your account

Ok, this has been a long post and you’re probably all about to poke your eyes out, so I’ll wrap it up. If you’re still confused about where to turn or if you need help with your specific situation and you aren’t getting it from the resources I listed above feel free to contact me.

© 2014, Captain. All rights reserved.

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