Unemployed veterans retraining catching on at O.C.

Olympic College works to help veterans over financial hurdles in accessing new created benefit for older unemployed veterans

Most of the talk about new retraining money for older out of work veterans has focused on how fast the first 45,000 slots filled following its opening last spring. This week marks the start of the second fiscal year of the program with an additional 54,000 funded retraining slots at community colleges and technical schools across the country.

Missing from the conversation is a financial hurdle created when the Department of Veterans Affairs started the program without a plan to cover tuition up front.

Among the local unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 signing up for classes at Olympic College under the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program some homeless and poor veterans didn’t have the estimated $1,500 upfront money required to get started using the new benefit.

VRAP is a collaboration between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor and is a provision of the Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, which Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law in November 2011.

As of Monday, 62,000 applications were received by the Department of Veterans Affairs of which 49,000 were approved nationally.

“We’re gratified that 45,000 unemployed Veterans can begin the retraining they need to compete for in-demand jobs,” said VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey last week. “We’re going to maintain the momentum of our outreach to make sure we get the maximum of 54,000 Veterans retrained in fiscal year 2013.”

At a recent Kitsap County Veterans Stand down held in Bremerton, Olympic College Veteran Center volunteer Larry Cleman explained that the glitch in VRAP’s dispersal plan has surfaced locally. Some homeless and poor veterans seeking to take advantage of the program at O.C. cannot do so because they don’t have the money to pay tuition up front. Most will need $1,500 up front to pay for the 12 credit hours in approved curricula required by the program, he said.

The program allows qualifying veterans to receive up to 12 months of education assistance equal to the current full-time Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty rate of $1,546 per month. When that money actually gets to the veteran depends on the school. Olympic college only certifies student enrollment after 30 days in class.

Olympic College Dean of Enrollment Services, Dianna Larson said that the VRAP program began with one component missing that would have addressed the specific issue faced by otherwise qualified homeless and poor veterans seeking access to their benefits. Originally the VRAP required the VA to have a plan for advance pay, she said.

“The colleges are trying to fill in the gaps right now,” Larson said, “until the plan is established.”

Matt McAlvanah, a spokesperson for Senator Patty Murray, said that the Senator recently intervened at Pierce Community College in Tacoma when the administration misread federal guidelines for  veterans trying to enroll through VRAP. Murray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, is considered to be the primary force behind the overall legislation to improve employment prospects for veterans.

McAlvanah Tuesday said the Senator reached out to the VA on the matter and the VA assured her office that advance pay for the VRAP was now available.

A spokesperson in the VA’s Seattle office Wednesday was unable to say if advance pay was available this quarter.

A recent  excluded community colleges that offer associated degrees from VRAP was ruled last June to be in violation of the “spirit” of the legislation creating the program.

Tonie Jeffrey is one such veteran whose seen the VRAP money delay issue first hand. An Army veteran with two bachelors degrees from the University of Washington, she was one of the first to enroll in VRAP at O.C. last spring and plans to use the program to get an associates degree in “information systems” to better her chances of reentering the workforce.

Jeffery said that sometimes getting reimbursed can take two months.

“It’s tough with the money,” she said.

Other issues Jeffery has seen in the program are the way education payments are prorated and tied to a “day rate” that can negatively affect a student when the quarter only goes to Dec. 7. The rest of that month isn’t covered she said.

Randall Burgess, an Army veteran working in the Vet Corps program, said that some schools in the state certify enrollment on day one of classes, which gets the VRAP money moving faster. That difference is a big help to cash strapped veterans the programs seeks to help, he said.

“There is no hold up,” Burgess said.

This fall, Olympic College’s student veterans enrolled under VRAP that faced that $1,500 financial hurdle, saw their financial aid “fast tracked” so that pell grants would be available to cover tuition and books on day one of class this fall, Larson said.

Larson said there were various ways for the up-front money required to enter O.C. to be taken care of, including special 10 percent and 15 percent tuition waivers for veterans that served in combat and for those that served supporting those in combat. Another solution is making three monthly $500 payments, she said.

Cleman said that after the up front tuition problem first surfaced, Larson “went to bat” for the veterans at O.C. in order to find a solution for the VA gap.

While it’s hard to say how many VRAP eligible unemployed veterans live in Kitsap County, nearly 1,200 sought the services of the county’s WorkSource office between Jan. 1 and the end of August. Margret Hess, director of WorkSource Kitsap County, said the numbers of veterans seeking direct help with their job hunts varies between 195 and 300 each month.

“That’s not counting those who come in and use only the resource center,” Hess said.

An estimated 34,000 veterans of the eligible age live in Kitsap County, however most pre-9/11 veterans have a higher employment rate that non-veterans of the same age.

Larson said that between eight and 10 students are enrolled at O.C. this fall under VRAP, but that the program is catching on and expects that more will take advantage of the new program as they become aware.

The VA as received some criticism for failing to get the word out on the program nationally.

Regardless of financial troubles she faced entering into the program, Jeffery, who is looking for the career bounce that fresh training and educations can offer mid-career veterans, called VRAP a “big help” in her efforts.