Tester to VA: Don’t take away veterans’ tuition benefits

Veterans Affairs reportedly considering withholding student benefits over debt

(BOZEMAN, Mont.) – Senator Jon Tester is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs not to withhold veterans’ tuition benefits over debts that many veterans incur at no fault of their own.

Veterans use GI Bill tuition benefits to attend classes and gain the skills needed to compete for jobs.  The VA is reportedly considering withholding the benefits of veterans who owe money to the VA, but many are in debt due to reasons beyond their control, such as administrative errors or mistaken overpayments by the VA. 

Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told the VA that forcing veterans to repay these debts before receiving tuition benefits would hurt veterans who rely on assistance to attend classes.

“While I understand that a veteran’s debt must be repaid, it cannot be done in an unnecessarily onerous manner,” Tester wrote VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.  “If VA policy is changed to withhold tuition benefits, it could cause undue hardships for veterans and contribute to the unacceptably high number of unemployed veterans.”

Tester said that while the VA can withhold future aid, tuition benefits are traditionally exempted because schools allow veterans to enroll in classes without paying knowing that G.I. bill benefits will later arrive.

“If this new policy was put into place, the veterans will be the ones who suffer,” said Brenda York, Director of Disability, Re-Entry and Veteran Services at Montana State University.  “It would make it impossible for schools to continue allowing students to begin their term without paying their full tuition upfront.  This unnecessary policy change would result in veterans and service members being forced to seek more loans and alternative forms of student aid.”

Schools also have no way to identify which veterans have outstanding debts to the VA, meaning that the policy change could leave veterans without expected assistance after classes begin.  VA debts are often not announced until years after debts are incurred.

Tester, who on Saturday is holding a Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing in Billings, led the charge to strengthen the 21st Century GI Bill that opened up educational opportunities for thousands of Montana veterans.

Tester’s letter to Secretary Shinseki, co-signed by Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska), is available below and online HERE.


April 19, 2012

The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki                                
Department of Veterans Affairs                                
810 Vermont Avenue, NW                                        
Washington, DC 20420                                             
Dear Secretary Shinseki:

We are grateful for your ongoing leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and are appreciative of your willingness to work closely with us on behalf of our nation’s veterans.  Given the numerous challenges confronting the men and women who have served our nation in uniform, it is more critical than ever that we devote the resources and attention they deserve.  We write today with concerns the VA is considering a policy that could cause undue hardships for veterans, contribute to the unacceptably high number of unemployed veterans and effectively require schools in Montana and Alaska to take on the role of debt collectors.

Enactment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill was undoubtedly a historic victory on behalf of our nation’s veterans and their families, and these increased benefits have provided a new generation with better opportunities to gain the skills they need to compete for jobs in a tough economy.  The policy change reportedly being considered by the VA would require veterans with outstanding VA debts to have their tuition benefits withheld.  While these veterans are currently subject to having future aid withheld to repay the money they owe, their tuition benefits are exempt.  And they are exempt for good reason.

As you know, GI Bill beneficiaries are allowed to enroll in school and begin taking classes before the arrival of their tuition benefits.  This practice builds upon the partnerships formed by our schools and the VA to provide service members and veterans with the quality education they have earned.  If VA policy is changed to withhold tuition benefits, that veteran would no longer be able to cover the cost of attendance and that debt would simply transfer from VA to the school in which he or she attends.  Schools have no means of identifying which veterans have outstanding debts to the VA so this process would unfold after the commencement of classes and after any opportunities to advise that veteran to explore other means of financial assistance.  As you know, VA debts are often not posted by Debt Management for years after the origination of the debt – causing even more confusion for the student and schools.

While we understand VA policy must recognize the reality that a veteran’s debts must be repaid, it cannot be done in an unnecessarily onerous manner.  Withholding tuition benefits to recoup these debts would place veterans at undue risk of financial hardship and jeopardize their ability to gain the skills and education they need to compete in an increasingly competitive job market.  In addition, it would place further strain on schools already stretched thin by efforts to administer and advise veterans on the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  Our veterans and our schools deserve better.

If the VA is considering such a policy change on debt recoupment, we strongly urge you to reconsider.  We appreciate your attention to this matter, and look forward to working with you toward resolution.

Jon Tester and Mark Begich