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Published: Saturday, 9/1/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

VA benefits for college hit glitch; checks late

Some vets attending classes without books

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN -- Army veteran Kyle Birkholz has attended classes for two weeks at Bowling Green State University without books.

He learned Friday that his book stipend from the Department of Veterans Affairs would not arrive as expected, nor would his monthly housing allowance.

A glitch at the VA means the check is not in the mail for Mr. Birkholz and countless other veterans across Ohio who receive benefits to attend college.

"This is a very anxiety-producing event in students' lives," said Barbara Henry, assistant vice president of nontraditional and transfer student services at BGSU. "The very beginning of the semester, they're trying to figure out what the work load is like, particularly if they're a new student transitioning, they may have been in Afghanistan in May, they're in university for the first time in September."

While the VA tries to iron out the problem, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and other state officials are urging colleges and universities to be flexible with student veterans so that none is penalized or forced to drop classes because of late payments.

BGSU, for its part, is cutting checks for all of its student veterans -- short-term loans with no interest, fees, or lengthy applications.

Mr. Birkholz, an athletic-training major from Clyde, Ohio, said he planned to take BGSU up on its offer.

"I'm going to have to. I need books," he said. "This really made me feel relieved."

The VA said Friday that "a system programming error" occurred when the agency was moving Ohio and West Virginia claims to St. Louis from Buffalo. The agency said it believed the glitch affected "potentially 300 Ohio and West Virginia students" whose college enrollments were received between July 24 and Aug. 9.

Area universities said the problem appears more widespread to them.

In a letter to area legislators, Bowling Green President Mary Ellen Mazey said the university believes "the vast majority of our 284 student veterans will not receive their basic monthly housing allowance or semester book stipends on time."

Those 284 students -- 32 of whom are at the Firelands campus near Huron, Ohio -- were notified by email that optional emergency loans were being made available. They were invited to meetings Friday on campus, where officials explained the situation and fielded questions.

Ms. Henry said affected students could pick up checks between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in Room 110 of the Administration Building. Students will be required to sign a promissory note, agreeing to repay the university once the VA checks arrive.

Geoff Roberts, an Army veteran from Port Huron, Mich., who did two tours of duty in Iraq, said he is to receive a $1,047 monthly housing allowance and a book stipend of up to $1,000 for the school year at BGSU. Because he has a part-time job on campus and savings, he doubts he'll need the loan, but he's pleased that BGSU is offering it.

"As a student I can't believe how quickly this whole process went through. It's huge," said Mr. Roberts, president of the BGSU Student Veterans' Club.

At the University of Toledo, Beth Gerasimiak, director of the Military Service Center, said 189 of UT's approximately 400 student veterans may be affected.

"Currently UT is exploring options for how we're going to assist those students," she said, adding that the university advises its student veterans to buy their books at the start of the semester and use the VA book stipend as a reimbursement for those purchases.

Owens Community College has approximately 350 student veterans, but Betsy Johnson, director of enrollment services, said she has no idea how many will be affected by the VA glitch.

Owens has contacted veterans support groups to alert them that students may need temporary financial assistance.

"We are working to make sure that none of our students are charged any late fees, that they are not dropped for non-payment," she said.

BGSU officials began investigating the problem two weeks ago after hearing from students who had contacted the VA and been told the university never submitted their enrollment records.

Bursar Christopher Cox said all 284 veterans' applications were submitted.

Although information provided to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) by the VA says the problems were to be cleared up by "close of business" Friday, university officials were wary.

"We'll be thrilled if no help is needed, but based on our conversations with the VA over the last couple weeks and the challenges our students have encountered, we're going to keep this safety net in place in case it's needed," said Dave Kielmeyer, a BGSU spokesman.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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