Veteran’s financial aid fails to notify students of policy change

Like many student veterans at the University, Alex Press, junior in Engineering, was counting on receiving his regular refund check in early January — a check he generally depends on to pay for bills.

But, as a result of an administrative decision made in the Office of Financial Aid, Press did not receive his usual refunds or monthly stipend and had to scrounge for extra money to make ends meet last month.

“I had to sell books back that I’d bought for this semester to make rent,” he said.

Through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, or Chapter 33, Press and other student veterans who served at least 90 days after Sept. 10, 2001, have their tuition and fees paid for by the Office of Veterans Affairs, or VA. The bill also covers textbook expenses, and housing costs when classes are in session. Most student veterans covered by the bill save up for the winter break gap in housing coverage but are relieved of the financial strain one week before the start of the semester as paperwork is usually filed well before the end of the preceding semester.

This semester, however, the paperwork was not filed until the end of the 10-day drop period, a new policy of the office. Veterans covered by Chapter 33 are supposed to notify the Office of Financial Aid if their course load changes, so the VA can pay accordingly. Last semester, though, many covered by the bill dropped classes without notifying Financial Aid, and when the office was audited, it was found to have owed the VA the extra money from dropped classes. Therefore, this semester, the office decided to change its policy.

These students, mostly made up of those who receive other types of grants and aid, were then asked to pay their tuition and fees. Press said he and many others were not notified about the change in policy or its effects.

Mat Jasieniecki, junior in LAS, said the office’s delay has caused an extra financial burden.

“I was supposed to get out of credit card debt for the first time in five years earlier this month, but that didn’t happen,” he said.

“I had to put off a bunch of other payments, I couldn’t pay my car bill for this month and barely made rent.”

Jasieniecki, 26, said there are fewer resources available to help stretch his dollar than the average University student.

“This affects me more than it affects a regular student because most of us don’t really live with our parents anymore … we can’t rely on them as a safety net like some other people can.”

The office began processing veterans’ financial aid Tuesday, said Victor Martinez, associate director of the Office of Financial Aid. In the meantime, he said the office has been giving out short-term loans to some of the 138 veterans covered by Chapter 33.

Though the affected student veterans have been contacting the VA about the situation, Martinez said the Office of Financial Aid is actually following the VA’s lead.

“It’s a recommendation by the VA,” he said of the 10-day drop period change. “That’s the day that we and other schools are using.”

Those students are used to contacting Robert Woods in the Office of Financial Aid, who deals with veterans’ tuitions and fees. However, Woods has been out sick on and off, Martinez said. Jasieniecki said the short staffing has been frustrating for him and his colleagues.

“If (some students) don’t get paid soon, they’re going to be in some deep financial trouble,” Jasiniecki said. “Possible eviction for some people; it’s a really scary time for a lot of us.”

Ryan DeGooyer, graduate student, said she relies on her monthly housing stipend for childcare expenses. But she said when she went to the Office of Financial Aid on Jan. 16 to figure out the situation, it had lost all the paperwork she filed in November.

“I have a 2-year-old I didn’t want to have to put in daycare, so we pay about $1,000 a month (for a nanny),” she said. “We rely on that income.”

Jasieniecki said the financial aid miscommunication speaks to the larger issue of veteran treatment at the University. With many first-year student veterans being much older than the average college freshman and in different stages in life, he said veterans need a better transition to student life. He said many large schools have resources such as veterans’ welcome centers to ease the process.

“With U of I being as big as it is and as good as it is … why don’t we have a veterans’ welcome center?” Jasieniecki said. “Why don’t we have dedicated personnel to make sure our transition is smooth?”

For now, he, Press, DeGooyer and others will make do until their financial aid is done with processing in mid-February. The VA has a Chapter 33 hotline set up, which states an approximate 30-day processing period.