The missing payments "made the semester a lot more complicated than it should have been," Amanda said recently. "Usually the first semester is hardest because you're trying to figure out everything. Having money complications made it a lot more stressful."
Amanda is among an unknown number of post-9/11 GI Bill users still victimized by computer software at the Department of Veterans Affairs that left staff unable to process two categories of claims. These cases simply were set aside to await a software upgrade. Affected students and schools, it appears, never even received a letter to explain why payments were frozen.
What might be called a "black hole" for some GI Bill claims hit students whose post-9/11 GI Bill award levels needed adjusting after the semester began, usually because a student added or dropped a course, as Amanda had done. But it also affected students who had changed campuses or schools, and therefore created "overlapping terms" which the old GI Bill software couldn't handle, said Keith Wilson, director of Veterans Affars' education service.
Amanda's situation was made more stressful because as a dependent using transferred benefits she was ineligible for the $3,000 lump-sum emergency payment Veterans Affairs officials began to make in early October to relieve financial stress on thousands of students whose new GI Bill payments were delayed by various start-up challenges.
"We don't have the mechanism for them to apply for that," Wilson said. The lump-sum payments, he explained, had to be made available quickly. Veterans Affairs computers only held data on veterans, to validate eligibility and track payments, and not on dependents.
"Once you start needing to rely on information removed from veterans' status, it becomes infinitely more complex," Wilson said. "So it was a challenge to set something up for dependents in the compressed time we were looking at."
Susan Collier, Amanda's mother, said she tried to learn everything she could over the past year about the new GI Bill and transferability so that financing her daughter's education this fall would be smooth. Her husband applied for benefits as soon as he could and transferred 100 percent of his GI Bill to his daughter. By Aug. 28, she had her GI Bill Certificate of Eligibility.
But when Amanda dropped a course in September, cutting total credit hours from 15 to 12, Veterans Affairs couldn't process an adjusted benefit award. So Amanda couldn't be paid her book stipend or her housing allowance to cover dorm costs. Her university couldn't be paid promised tuition fees.
"The Housing Office at the school threatened us with letters each month that they were going to turn us over to a collection agency," Susan said. "We called the Housing Office each month and they finally agreed to wait for the money ... until the next month came and still no money."
To make matters worse, Amanda wants to transfer next semester to a smaller school. But the university, Susan said, "will not give her a final transcript because she still owes them money. ... All of this means we are on the hook for over $15,000 since the VA isn't paying."
Wilson said the software fix that impacted students such as Amanda was installed in early November. Veterans Affairs officials have told Susan the back payments should arrived by mid-December.
Wilson couldn't say if the affected students were notified that their payments weren't coming until after the software upgrade happened. The Colliers said they only learned of the issue after multiple calls to Veterans Affairs and eventually being assigned a case manager. At a minimum, Susan said, Veterans Affairs could have explained the situation on the GI Bill Web site but didn't.
As of Dec. 1, Veterans Affairs had received 340,000 applications for post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility determinations. Action has been completed on 276,000.
Among the pool of applicants found eligible for benefits, 124,000 have enrolled in school. A total of 104,500 students, and their schools, are receiving post-9/11 GI Bill payments. Veterans Affairs has issued the $3,000 advance payments to more than 62,000 students.
The overall backlog of GI Bill payments is shrinking, Wilson said.
"We will keep it in place as long as necessary," Wilson said.
In October, Veterans Affairs had to hire a contractor to help process the easier Montgomery GI Bill claims, to free more Veterans Affairs staff to work on the more complex post-9/11 backlog. In total, Veterans Affairs has added 760 people to its work force over the past year to implement the new benefit, Wilson said.
A new, fully automated information technology system to process GI Bill benefits is scheduled to be operational by December 2010.