Update on Issues Affecting Veterans Benefits
Published by: WCET | 11/11/2021
Thank you to our many military veterans! As we look forward to Veterans Day, we wish to honor the men and women who serve and who have served in the U.S. Armed Services.
WCET Frontiers frequently shares information regarding Veterans Benefits about the issues related to students receiving benefits while participating in distance learning. Institution staff members who oversee that management of Veterans Benefits for students must understand that the laws and regulations that the institution must follow are different than the laws and regulations regarding Title IV Federal Financial Aid. One should consider that the oversight of these two different student assistance programs is overseen by two separate Cabinet level Executive Departments–the Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Education (USED), respectively. There is often confusion about process management to support the students.
Important measures have recently taken place that affect the process and delivery of Veterans Benefits.
First, the VA released proposed regulations, State Approving Agency Jurisdiction Rule, that are subject to public comment through December 13, 2021. Second, state Veterans Services offices distributed emails to School Certifying Officials (SCOs) on September 24, 2021, to notify institutions that December 21, 2021, is the end date for the emergency COVID-19 legislation that permitted the GI Bill® for students to receive Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) at the resident (in person) rate, while taking approved courses converted to distance learning due to COVID-19. Third, Congress is considering legislation that addresses technical corrections to recently enacted legislation including Isakson & Roe Section 1018 notifications, allowing the VA to waive the requirement of a “second certification” of benefits for campuses with a flat tuition and fee structure, and making the VA’s “rounding out” rule less restrictive.
The VA proposed regulations address three issues:
The State Approving Agency (SAA) in each state is responsible for evaluating and approving quality programs of education at the institution. You may be scratching your head saying well doesn’t the State higher education agency do that along with accreditors? The answer would be yes, but the institution must also follow requirements as overseen by the SAA for the institution’s students to receive Veterans Benefits. Additionally, the SAA in many states is housed in an agency separate from the one that oversees higher education, which adds to the confusion. The SAA’s approval decisions are provided to the VA so that the benefits can be paid to the students.
The first issue addressed by the VA’s proposed regulations addresses which state SAA has jurisdiction to approve courses when students are located in a state different than the home state of the institution. Before reading further, State oversight by the State higher education agency or for participation in reciprocity through SARA does not figure into the equation to be in compliance with VA regulations. Also, note that the VA uses terms that are slightly different than those used by the Department of Education. That being said, completely separate for purposes of Veterans Benefits, the proposed regulations clarify that the state SAA where the main campus of the institution is located has the jurisdiction to approve out-of-state courses of the student for:
The second issue proposes that the SAA may no longer indicate “no action” as a decision in the review of an application for approval. The decision must indicate one of the following:
The third issue proposes clarification that the SAA may deny an application if required approval criterion is not met or if the application is outside of the SAA’s jurisdiction. Additionally, for purposes of approved courses, the SAA must determine if courses continue to comply with approval requirements. Finally, when an application is denied, suspended, or withdrawn, the SAA must notify the institution and the VA with reasoning for the action. The proposed regulations remove the word “disapproval” in favor of “denial.”
Public comment on these proposed regulations will be accepted through December 13, 2021. The information to submit a public comment can be found in the Federal Register Announcement for the State Approving Agency Jurisdiction Rule. WCET members serving veterans may wish to consider commenting or questioning interpretations throughout this process.
Federal law, The Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2010, provides that veterans utilizing benefits are entitled to a reduced Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) if the student participates in courses solely by distance learning. The reduction is described as 50% of the national average which is currently $871 regardless of where the veteran lives. However, for example, if the veteran is assigned to the Pentagon and living in Northern Virginia taking courses from Northern Virginia Community College and participating in at least one course face-to-face, the veteran will receive $2,544 MHA. Quite a difference! For several years, WCET has wondered why the distinction?
When the pandemic caused postsecondary institutions to pivot all face-to-face courses to remote learning in March 2020, all veterans utilizing benefits found themselves participating in courses solely by distance learning. Based upon current law, this means all veterans utilizing benefits would have found themselves with the reduced MHA without Congressional intervention. The VA had issued guidance on March 13, 2020, indicating the limitations of the language of the Federal law to be flexible at this time of emergency. Fortunately, Congress acted quickly to develop emergency legislation to authorize the VA to continue educational assistance for programs that have been converted to distance learning due to an emergency or health-related situation. This initial period for this emergency legislation was initially set to expire on December 20, 2020, but was extended through December 21, 2021, when Congress passed Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020.
On September 24, 2021, state Veterans Services offices distributed emails to School Certifying Officials (SCOs) indicating that the period of the emergency legislation will end on December 21, 2021. SCOs were advised how the GI Bill students will be affected:
The bottom line is that the flexibilities for purposes of GI Bill benefits ends December 21, 2021, despite the fact that the Department of Education flexibilities for purposes of Title IV HEA programs will continue until the end of the national emergency. Congressional action is needed to extend the flexibilities for MHA for veterans beyond December 21, 2021.
Two bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in early October 2021 (H.R.5545 – REMOTE Act and H.R.5509 – Student Veteran COVID-19 Protection Act of 2021). Generally speaking, these are similar bills. The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs published information from its October 27, 2021 hearing.
Provisions include technical corrections to amend Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 that was enacted in January 2021. Technical corrections would include adjustments to the consumer information requirements in Section 1018.
Other provisions include changes to the VA’s “rounding out” rule, which allows students utilizing GI Bill benefits to “round out” their final academic term course schedules with classes that may or may not apply toward their degree programs to retain full-time status, thus receiving full-time benefits. The bill provides a less restrictive approach on permitted courses for the course load to be considered full-time benefits.
Additionally, the bills include language to extend the flexibilities for the MHA for students who are continuing to participate in their courses solely by distance learning by reason of emergency and health related situations while utilizing GI Bill Benefits. Both bills provide for the extension to apply through June 1, 2022.
It is hoped that the bipartisan support of the veterans will cause Congress to move swiftly to pass legislation in advance of the congressional Thanksgiving recess.
WCET and the State Authorization Network will continue to follow these issues and share information as it becomes available.