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VA Officials Tout Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits

With more than 260,000 students attending about 6,000 colleges and universities this fall under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, officials are continuing an active outreach effort to ensure current military members and veterans don’t miss out on the new program’s education benefits.

Participation is up significantly from last year, when 180,000 students used Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to start the fall 2009 semester, said Keith Wilson, the director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration.

For the first time since U.S. government officials offered the original GI Bill benefits after World War II, about 50,000 of the students covered have been family members — wives, husbands and children of enrollees.

This “transferability” feature was a big draw of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Defense Department officials said, and remains an important recruiting and retention incentive. So far, the military services have approved 145,000 servicemember requests to transfer benefits to about 331,000 family members, Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez reported.

Last week, Clifford Stanley, the Pentagon personnel chief, and the service recruiting chiefs called the education benefit a huge factor in helping them achieve recruiting and retention successes in fiscal 2010.

The vast majority of the students currently taking advantage of GI Bill benefits attend public universities. However, Mr. Wilson said, continued growth within the Yellow Ribbon program that enables students to attend some of the country’s most prestigious and high-end private schools.

The 3,000 participating colleges and universities agree to waive or offset up to 50 percent of costs above the highest public in-state undergraduate rate, and the Veterans Affairs Department matches the same amount.

As VA officials laud the Post 9/11 GI Bill’s popularity and growth, officials are continuing to tweak the systems that drive it to make them faster, more responsive and more customer-friendly. Last fall, as VA experienced some “hiccups” rolling out the new benefit, it took an average of 48 days to issue payments after receiving enrollment notification from a college of university, Wilson said.

This fall, he said, it took about 17 days.

“We have experienced a fundamental improvement in our ability to pay people timely,” Mr. Wilson said. “But we hope to cut it down even more. What we would like to see is a 10-day turnaround on these things, and we are confident we will get there.”

To meet that goal, Mr. Wilson is counting on automation to cut the time required to make eligibility decisions and calculate benefits — now largely a manual process. New systems are being phased in, he said, and the initial systems are now being used to process all claims.

The next step, he said, is to integrate data feeds from other VA systems.

“Once we get them in place, our goal is for a lot of the work to not require human intervention at all,” Mr. Wilson said. “It will take us weeding through these and making sure we get it right.”

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