Repairing the bridge of opportunity for student-veterans

In a windowless room in our Admissions office, Pima Community College employees are doing important work pertaining to national security. These specialists in veterans’ benefit issues are examining the course records of Veterans Benefit Recipients (VBRs) from PCC. After protecting our freedoms by serving in the military, these veterans know that upon returning to civilian life, they will be able to take advantage of the education and training opportunities afforded them through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. PCC is the bridge to those opportunities.

Unfortunately, the College has not performed its duties adequately. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs auditors earlier this year found that in a significant number of cases, PCC failed to accurately and promptly report to the VA information on changes in enrollment, applicability of credits to a student’s program of study, and out-of-state tuition and fees for VBRs. As a result, the Arizona Veterans Approving Agency has taken away our ability to certify the enrollment of new-to-PCC VBRs for 60 days, and has directed us to improve our record-keeping and other services in order to properly support our student-veterans.

We are doing our utmost to make things right, and earlier this week I had the privilege of spending time with PCC specialists who are diligently checking the records. One of the Student Services Specialists/Veterans Certifying Officials succinctly outlined to me the task before her and her colleagues. Working from a checklist derived from a Veterans Administration handbook, the specialists have for the past two weeks begun examining the files of each of the approximately 1,700 VBRs at PCC. They are attempting to verify a wide range of information, including whether courses apply to a student’s program of study, whether withdrawals from classes are accompanied by last dates of attendance, and that proof of previous education exists.

Many of the files are correct and can be verified quickly. But many have inaccuracies, and as each veteran’s file is unique and complex, it may take hours to gather correct information. Many veterans have attended PCC for years, meaning the specialists face the daunting task of verifying the accuracy of more than 11,000 semesters of attendance. In some cases, accurately reporting information to the VA will result in the agency contacting some student-veterans.

“We are doing the best we possibly can,” the specialist said. After seeing the professionalism and dedication of the 20 employees assisting in the effort – including working nights and weekends — I am confident their labors, and that of Assistant Registrar for Veterans and Graduation Gary Parker and Executive Director of Financial Aid Terra Benson, will bring us up to federal and state standards. The College must do more, however. It needs to create an institution-wide system that makes it impossible for us to veer off course again. Effective administration of veterans’ benefits is the least we can do for those who have sacrificed for all of us.

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