Program helps USF’s veterans navigate GI Bill

TAMPA — Sitting before a panel of officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs, servicemen and women hoping or currently enrolled at the University of South Florida piled on the questions.

How to transfer eligibility from the old GI Bill to the new one?

Can a wife or other relative utilize the tuition allowance?

What to do about a lost application for benefits?

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most comprehensive education benefit offered to veterans since the original GI Bill for World War II veterans was passed in 1944.

It can also be complicated: There are three different payments, as opposed to one under the old system, and the eligibility requirements work on a sliding scale.

To help students navigate the process — and get access to other veteran benefits — the Department of Veterans Affairs is operating a pilot program called VetSuccess on Campus out of the University of South Florida in Tampa. It places a VA counselor on campus to assist students with everything from academics to mental health referrals.

USF is the only university in the country taking part in the pilot, which will last about a year. It will then be evaluated, and officials hope to implement it in other universities across the country.

“It’s not just about veterans being able to go to school,” said Will A. Gunn, general counsel for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “It’s about maximizing the chance for success.”

An estimated 112,000 claims for benefits under the new GI Bill have already been processed, and an estimated 250,000 veterans are expected to receive education benefits in the next two years, a VA spokeswoman said.

The bill took effect earlier this month. The maximum benefit allows veterans to attend a public college or university at no cost for four years. Tuition is now paid directly to the university. Veterans are given a $1,000 book stipend per year — regardless of their book costs — and a living stipend based on their location.

For veterans living near USF, the living stipend amounts to $1,547 a month, said Ron Scoggins, an education liaison representative with the Department of Veterans Affairs who attended Monday’s round-table.

“This one is very complicated simply because of eligibility requirements and payments,” Scoggins said of the bill.

Veterans who served 90 days to six months after Sept. 10, 2001, are eligible for 40 percent of the maximum benefit payable. To receive 100 percent, veterans must serve at least 36 months. Those who completed at least 30 continuous days of active duty and who were discharged because of a service-connected disability also qualify for 100 percent.

Under the new bill, benefits can also be transferred to a spouse or dependent children.

Kristin Adams, the VetSuccess campus representative at USF, said he has been fielding concerns about GI bill claims, VA home loans, and physical and mental health needs since starting in June.

For veterans dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, “it’s going to be difficult for you to come back to a classroom,” he said.

The University of South Florida was chosen for the pilot because of the considerable size of its veteran population, administrative support, and proximity to a VA hospital, Gunn said.

USF has about 1,000 veterans studying at the campus each year.

“Somebody called this the ‘soldiers to scholars era,’ ” USF president Judy Grenshaft said. “And I love that.”