Tag Archives: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

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.

Serving those who served

Chancellor and Scott Plotts

Student-veterans deserve the best Pima Community College has to offer as they transition to civilian life. Many of them have put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms. As PCC student-veteran Steven Jackson puts it, “Our military is what keeps this country safe and strong.”

The College is enriched by the experiences and perspectives that student-veterans and the approximately 1,600 Veterans Benefits Recipients bring to our campuses each semester. PCC and other higher education institutions are the perfect bridge for veterans as they move from structured military life to a civilian world that is full of choices. As chancellor, an Army veteran, and the son of an Army veteran, I have committed PCC to do right by these brave men and women. An improvement effort is underway, but we have a lot more work to do.

Earlier today, I had the privilege of attending the rededication of the expanded and improved Veterans Center at our Downtown Campus. The College worked with student-veterans to redesign the center, located off an attractive campus courtyard. The new center replaces a previous center that was deemed too small and not fully in keeping with the needs of our student-veterans.

At 1,500 square feet, the new center is more than four times larger than the previous center. It includes computers, rooms for study and reflection, and a kitchenette. Scott Plotts (pictured above), president of the PCC chapter of the Student Veterans Association who spoke at the rededication, termed the changes “vast improvements” and proclaimed, “We can proudly say that our needs have been met.”

More than a dozen student-veterans attended the event, along with PCC employees, Governing Board members and officials from the state and federal branches of government, including representatives of U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, and U.S. Representatives Ron Barber and Raúl Grijalva. Ruben Reyes of Rep. Grijalva’s office put it well: the center is “more than a brick and mortar symbol of commitment. It is a place to call home.”

The Veterans Center is an example of PCC at its best, as is our recent hiring of three Veterans Services Specialists, as well as assigning oversight of Veterans Education Benefits to an Assistant Registrar who is a former student and a retired chief master sergeant with 28 years of service in the Air Force. Also, we have provided in-depth training to Student Services staff so that they can serve as points of contact on the campus, and counsel students on benefit certification.  We are offering Veterans Benefit Recipient orientations and the Veterans Services Specialists will spend two days a week on campuses, serving and supporting our Veterans Benefit Recipients as they achieve their academic goals.

But serious problems exist in our veterans benefit processes. Earlier this week, the College received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs detailing findings made during a compliance survey conducted at PCC in January 2014. [You can read the letter on the Veterans Benefits page of our website.]

In summary, the compliance survey 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 veterans benefit recipients.

Additionally, according to the letter, similar discrepancies were found in 2013, and the College did not follow a plan from March 2013 designed to fix the problems. The College’s veterans department was in transition at the time. But the reality is we dropped the ball.

We will have a new plan for improvement ready very soon. All actions in the plan will be completed. The plan will ensure that we fully comply with all federal laws and regulations and state policies.

Fixing real problems and delivering tangible benefits doesn’t happen quickly, and institutional change is an ongoing process. However, by meeting problems head-on, PCC can fulfill its commitment to becoming a student-centered learning organization that delivers the best support to our student-veterans and Veteran Benefit Recipients.  Helping pay society’s debt to veterans is an endeavor that the College is honored to undertake.