WASHINGTON - Universities and colleges are still waiting for tuition payments for thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attended school last fall under the new GI Bill, leaving the veterans worried that they'll be unable to return to class in January.

Veterans Affairs Department officials promise to get them back into the classroom. The VA says the number of veterans with claims unprocessed is now fewer than 5,000 - down from tens of thousands - and the goal is to have them all processed by the end of the year.

"We continue to work on a daily basis with schools to make sure that no student is denied attending class as a result of delayed tuition payments," Katie Roberts, a VA spokeswoman, said yesterday. "It's a top priority for VA to make sure that students can focus on their studies rather than their bank accounts."

But after being besieged by delays and financial hardship last semester that left them struggling to make rent payments and pay for textbooks, many veterans are frantically contacting veterans service organizations such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America for guidance.

Clay Hunt, a former Marine corporal who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, attends Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He said he and his wife have racked up about $4,000 in credit card debt because his university won't release student loans he needs for living expenses until tuition is fully paid. Hunt, 27, said that under the GI Bill the school is still owed about $6,000 and he personally is owed about $1,700 for housing and books.

"I am disappointed about it," Hunt said. "I'm very disappointed about the way it was implemented. I feel like the VA had ample time to figure out how they were going to disburse these payments and make sure this transition to the new GI Bill went smoothly, and they definitely failed to do that."

President Obama rolled out the post-9/11 GI Bill on Aug. 3, and praised it as an opportunity to transform the lives of a new generation of veterans. It's designed to be the most comprehensive education benefit for veterans since World War II.

The maximum benefit allows eligible veterans to attend a public college or university for free for four years, provides a monthly housing stipend, and up to $1,000 a year for books. Active-duty service members can transfer the benefit to their spouse or children.

But the complexity of the formula used to establish what the veteran receives, and a clunky information-technology system used by the VA to process claims, means that each claim takes about an hour and a half to process and it has to be manually processed in four different IT systems.