Tens of thousands of veterans who headed to college this fall under a new GI Bill that promises to cover most, if not all, of their expenses are scrambling to pay bills because of delays in benefit checks, say students, colleges, and veterans groups.
"The GI Bill is a mess," said Rutgers University-Camden freshman Robeen Billings, 24, a former naval electronics technician. "I'm struggling because my first semester is not paid. I'm commuting from Newark to Camden, living off my credit card."
On Friday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said that the veterans had a right to complain, and that his department would try to set things right by issuing emergency checks of up to $3,000 to veterans whose payments have been delayed.
"It's clear to me that we have to do something, just to be on the safe side to alleviate any stress that students are facing," Shinseki told the Associated Press.
The checks will be distributed at 57 regional VA offices starting Friday. The VA said it expected to send representatives to schools with large veteran populations and work with veterans' service organizations to help students with transportation needs.
Since Aug. 1, when the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, the VA has approved nearly 200,000 of 277,000 applications but issued just 61,000 payments totaling more than $50 million, according to figures released last week.
Shinseki said the process would be automated and more efficient next year.
"The good news is that kids are taking advantage of it. They're lining up to go to school," he said.
Like the original GI Bill of 1944, the new bill is intended to help veterans earn degrees at virtually no cost to them. Eligibility is based on length of service after Sept. 10, 2001.
Benefits, which are transferable to a veteran's spouse or children, can be applied to vocational-technical, undergraduate, or graduate programs. Tuition and living allowances vary by state. The bill is projected to cost $62 billion over 10 years, according to the VA.
At Philadelphia-area colleges and universities, veteran enrollment is up 10 percent to 30 percent this fall, with numbers expected to rise as more service members learn about the enhanced benefit.
Most schools are allowing veterans to defer tuition until their VA payments come in. Most problems have concerned delays in monthly living allowances.
Nationwide, said Derek Blumke, executive director of Student Veterans of America, "there are thousands of veterans who can't pay their rent." The group has chapters at 200 colleges, including Pennsylvania State and Rutgers Universities.
Area community colleges are seeing the largest influx of students seeking to use Post-9/11 benefits. At Camden County College, the VA has approved 87 students, and 10 applications are pending. As of Thursday, only 16 had received checks, said Christine Willse, the school's veterans-services adviser.
Former Marine James Hambley, 25, of Maple Shade, has been caught short by the delay. Between his savings and GI Bill living allowance, he figured he could quit his job and attend CCC full time. Without the benefits coming in, Hambley has applied for a two-month deferment on his car and personal loans. He looked into a government student loan, but that money wouldn't be available until November, he said.
College advisers have told him that he shouldn't work more than 20 hours a week while taking 14 credits toward his engineering-science degree, Hambley said, but "that's not going to cut it" until the first check arrives - in November, the government now tells him. He's out looking for work.
"I'll be done my first semester before I ever get my first check," joked Hambley, who did two tours in Iraq before his discharge in 2006.
Working with military students in Pemberton Township and a satellite campus on McGuire Air Force Base has taught Burlington County College president Robert Messina that they generally don't have "a huge supply of money. They need that money right away. Everyone was geared up for this except the agency that's supposed to disburse the money."
When Billings was discharged in August after six years in the Navy, he immediately applied for the enhanced benefits so he could study computer engineering at Rutgers.
"It's so slow. It's terrible," he said. "I don't want to take out a loan, but it's about four weeks from the day your paperwork gets processed."
According to the VA, claims processing averaged 35 days, but fall-term volume has lengthened that time. The goal will be to process initial claims in fewer than 25 days and reenrollments in 10 days.
During the same period, the VA's 900 employees received more than 603,000 applications for other educational benefits, too.
"We need to have a little bit of patience," said Army veteran Dan Cessaro, a senior business major at Rowan University who works in the Glassboro school's veterans office.
Cessaro, 26, of Princeton, sent in his application during the summer, as soon as the VA began to accept them. But final approval and payments come only after a college or university confirms that the student enrolled - several weeks into the semester.
"I expected a delay because it's a new program," said Cessaro, formerly a combat engineer stationed in Germany. "You shouldn't be at the point where you need the VA money to get by."
Despite benefit delays, university administrators in New Jersey and Pennsylvania were quick to praise the bill and the VA's open communication.
"It's a sea change from previous GI Bills," said Mary Beth Daisey, associate chancellor for student affairs at Rutgers-Camden.
The last version before this one, known as the Montgomery Bill or the Veterans' Educational Assistance Act of 1984, "covered half or a little more of tuition and fees," Daisey said. "Students paid up front and got reimbursed."
Previously, Cessaro received about $1,300 a month to cover tuition, books, and housing. The Post-9/11 GI Bill will pay his tuition and fees directly to Rowan and send him $1,000 for books and $1,769 a month for living expenses.
The housing allowance is adjusted for the cost of living and will help states where rents are high, such as New Jersey, retain students, predicted Wendy Lang, director of Operation College Promise, a consortium of New Jersey's nine state colleges.
"It's fair to predict that with legislation of this size, the system will need some time to adjust," said Lang, whose group has received a $100,000 private grant to train campuses to become more "military-friendly."
VA education benefits are so complicated that university officials recommend that veterans consult military and college counselors before deciding which to use. Depending on service time and disabilities, the Post-9/11 bill may not be the best option.
"You need to be educated before you make a decision," said AnneMarie Pustizzi, Rowan's Veterans Affairs coordinator. "Each individual's qualifications are different."