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You've Served Your Country, Now Get To Class


This spring, we're joining our colleagues at NPR's Morning Edition to bring you stories that might help you navigate the higher education money maze. And today we want to talk about veterans.

There are a number of education programs to help military veterans pay for college. That includes the G.I. Bill. In fact, the government processed almost 1 million veterans' claims for education benefits in 2012. That's the most recent year we have available data. But the process can be pretty hard to sort through, and we wanted to hear more and get some advice.

We have Michael Dakduk. He works on veterans affairs for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, and he's a former Marine as well. Welcome.

MICHAEL DAKDUK: Thank you so much for having me, Celeste.

HEADLEE: And also with us, Cary Ann (ph) Grayson. She's a veteran of the U.S. Army and now a middle school teacher in San Antonio, TX. Cary Ann, welcome to you, too.

CARY ANN GRAYSON: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: You left the service in 2008, which is fairly recent, Cary Ann. I wonder to what extent is college on the minds of not just you, but your colleagues in the service?

GRAYSON: I believe that we feel that we have to have college in order to get another job, further our education. I know I already had my undergraduate degree. So when I got out, I was not competitive with other people.

A lot of people were getting out of the military, and so that was our next step. We had to either get another degree or another certification in order to become competitive with the other civilians.

HEADLEE: So, Michael, there is a myth out there that if you serve, your college is paid for. It's not quite that comprehensive, is it?

DAKDUK: Well, the most comprehensive benefit that folks are aware of these days is the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. But there's a whole host of other programs that exist, including a program that just expired on the 31st of last month, known as the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program that provided 12 months of the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which is still in existence, to individuals age 35 to 60 that are unemployed.

That program's expired, but there's legislation right now that some folks would like to see move forward that would extend this program out. The Montgomery G.I. Bill is still in existence. And then you have disability programs like the Vocational Rehabilitation and Education training program, which is known as VRNE.

And as a matter of fact, this past Veterans Day, the VA announced - the Department of Veterans Affairs - announced the one millionth beneficiary of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. So you can expect that there's probably well over 1 million veterans using that benefit now.

HEADLEE: Well, Cary Ann, let me bring this back to you. You thought you didn't qualify for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. And I imagine there's many veterans out there who aren't entirely clear about what kind of benefits they can get and what they can't.

GRAYSON: Correct. When I got out in 2008, since I used ROTC and I got my commission through using college, I did not think I qualified for the post-9/11. When I got out in 2008 with my disability rating, I thought I only qualified for the vocational rehabilitation program. My counselor told me that they were not going to use the voc rehab to pay for another degree. She had suggested that I try getting a job first using certifications.

And it wasn't until I was done with my vocational rehab that she started talking about, hey, you may qualify for the post-9/11. Why don't you check it out? And then after I became a teacher after a year, I started looking into it more. And then I applied for the post-9/11 and my university, and then I got accepted.

HEADLEE: And having read kind of some of the things you went through, it sounds like it was fairly common, in your experience at least, the people were either not fully informed about what was available. You didn't know what forms you needed to fill out. You seemed to have had trouble just kind of working your way through the paperwork.

GRAYSON: I did. At my university, the office that they have is kind of hidden back. They tell you where it is, but when you show up, they may have workers that don't work for the Veterans Affair. They may be on a student work hour.

And a lot of times when I would go and ask for assistance, they would tell me to call the 1-800 number, which, you know, a lot of veterans know, we do have a hard time getting in that. Either you do get hold of somebody, you don't, or the system is automated and it'll just hang up on you.

HEADLEE: Michael, how common is that experience that she's talking about - some of the bureaucracy, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, you don't know where to go to get help?

DAKDUK: What Cary mentioned is something that many of my fellow veteran advocates and myself recognized over the past year or few years, and we worked on different initiatives to get more consumer education out to military veterans and service members.

One of the big things that has been worked on over the past few years is the revamping of the Transition Assistance Program, which is now mandatory across all services. I'm by no means going to say it's a perfect program.

Before, it was only mandatory for the Marines. The president referenced it as reverse boot camp, so making sure folks are educated on their benefits and what they are eligible for prior to removing the uniform. So that's absolutely paramount. There's been legislation that's floating around about making certain tracks.

There's three optional tracks that service members can go down. One of those optional tracks is around education - so more consumer education, counseling and making sure that institutions are prepared...

HEADLEE: That's the question...

DAKDUK: ...To educate folks.

HEADLEE: Let's examine that for just a little bit because, I mean, there are so many universities and colleges and different educational programs. And if every one of those institutions is responsible for understanding these bills and what's available and helping these veterans, you know, that's another problem.

I mean, no matter how well-educated and trained the vet is, if they have to go through the university, there's another stumbling block.

DAKDUK: For military veterans, there's two bureaucracies they have to navigate when they make the transition. First, they're going to navigate the bureaucracy of the higher education institution. And that exists everywhere. The second bureaucracy is the Department of Veterans Affairs and getting their benefits.

And you heard Cary mention that when she was trying to call the 1-800 hotline or get in touch with veteran officials. That has been common. But there are a host of resources out there that allow veterans to get more access to information, including some revamped counseling programs that exist.

That's something that myself and fellow veteran advocates have worked on to make sure that veterans are prepared and have the knowledge and resources to choose the best program for them, including the best benefit and the best institution that's fit for where they're at in the educational program they perhaps want to pursue. So it is complex. I think one of the things we have to be careful is we can't put this on the backs of one institution, per se. Everybody plays a role.

HEADLEE: Cary Ann, what do you think about all this? If there is one thing that would have really made it easier for you the entire process of getting your education, what would it have been?

GRAYSON: For me, it would have been a local resource center. Like, you know, I went to the university. They had this small school. There is a local university Texas A&M, San Antonio that is building a - they're calling it the Patriots' Casa.

They're building a one-stop shop for veterans. If they want to apply to the university, the veteran can go to this building. They'll have services there. It's the first of its kind in Texas. And hopefully, with, you know, a one-stop shop where I'm not having to go to, you know, downtown to the hospital or going to this veterans resource center, hopefully having something on a local university will help veterans kind of transition better.

HEADLEE: So, Michael, she mentioned Texas A&M in San Antonio. Are there any other universities or colleges that are actually doing this right?

DAKDUK: I think so. I think there's a whole host of them, and there's also best practices. I'll give you a few other examples. There's a career college in Virginia by the name of ECPI University. And they have a host of resources, including an employee that's directly focused on Military and Veterans Affairs.

He's a central resource or, as Cary mentioned, kind of a local resource for information. We've seen an emergence across colleges and universities of veteran resource centers or veteran centers on campus. That's becoming one of the new best practices that we're seeing.

HEADLEE: Kind of what Cary Ann was talking about. Yeah.

DAKDUK: Absolutely. There are a couple of best practices. As a matter of fact, I'm publishing a white paper on this on kind of the landscape of higher education and defining military friendly and veteran friendly. And I talk about some of the best practices and resources that are out there.

Our association, APSCU - if you go to APSCU.org - has a best practices guide that talks about military veteran best practices that you can implement. There are a few other groups, like Operation College Promise and the American Council on Education, that have veteran resource guides or veteran friendly toolkits.

HEADLEE: Cary Ann, though, I assume that even for some vet out there that's frustrated with the process, you'd still say, stick with it. It's worth it, right?

GRAYSON: Definitely, stick with it. Since I'm a teacher, you know, I believe in education and higher education. Now I believe that there's more resources than when I get out in 2008. And, you know, one of the best things is to network with other veterans.

You know, I run a couple groups on Facebook. And people will post, hey, you know, there's a job fair here, oh, hey, this university will help. And so just, you know, networking - if you can't find that resource, just network with other veterans and get that support locally.

HEADLEE: Cary Ann Grayson, veteran of the U.S. Army, now a middle school teacher in San Antonio, where she joined us at member station KSTX. And Michael Dakduk is the vice president of Military and Veterans Affairs for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. He joined me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks to both of you.

GRAYSON: Thank you.

DAKDUK: Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: And remember, we hope you weigh in on this story on Twitter. It's #PayingForCollege. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.