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November 17, 2015

Veterans Inefficiencies Complicate Financial Aid Process

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For military veterans at Cornell, filing for financial aid and receiving support through the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill can be a “nightmare.” Many veterans who spoke with The Sun described a slow and disorganized system, even as administrators insist that veteran admissions remains a priority for Cornell.

There are currently 130 students who receive benefits under Chapter 33 of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, 69 of whom are veterans, according to Melissa Osgood, deputy director of media relations. However, many of these veterans described the filing system to receive aid as disorganized and criticized the time it takes the University to transfer necessary documents to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

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ROTC members stand at Cornell’s Veterans Day Ceremony in Barton Hall last Wednesday. (Hui Tong / Sun Staff Photographer)

Jason Locke, associate vice president for enrollment, stressed that care for military personnel and veteran admissions has long been a priority at Cornell, and said the University has recently partnered with a new program called Service to School VetLink, in an effort to attract more veterans.

“Veterans are an institutional admission priority for Cornell and have been for many years,” Locke said. “We have historically benefited from a regular pool of self-identifying active duty military personnel, who are getting ready to depart the service, and veterans who are interested in Cornell. They most often have been prospective transfer students.”

The University actively recruits veterans through the Service to School VetLink, the Marine Corps Leadership Scholar Program, the Veterans Education Guide and through partnerships with community colleges, according to Locke, but caps the number of students accepted under the Yellow Ribbon financial aid program at 100.

The Yellow Ribbon program partners colleges with the Veteran’s Association to cover remaining tuition costs after aid provided by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. As a result of this cap, veterans often do not receive sufficient financial aid if the spaces are filled, and must turn to taking out other loans.

Even once admitted to Cornell, veterans reported that financial aid support from the University when dealing with the G.I. Bill often stalled or was unnecessarily complicated.

Scott Johnson ’16, who served in the U.S. Navy in San Diego, Djibouti and Norfolk, Virginia and is currently a reservist, said in his opinion, veterans must undergo two unofficial steps for acceptance: first, to be accepted, and second, to see if they can actually afford tuition.

“The first acceptance doesn’t really mean anything until you know you’re going to be able to come; that took a very long time to get,” Johnson said. “So even after you’re approved to come to this school, knowing whether you’re actually able to attend took a long time. It took maybe eight weeks or so to finally get any G.I. Bill funds at all; the same thing happened again this year.”

Seamus Murphy ’16, co-chair of Cornell’s Undergraduate Veterans Association — which networks on behalf of veterans — said veterans face numerous difficulties at Cornell, and that many particularly struggle with the financial aid system. Murphy, who served two tours in Iraq in the U.S. Army, called the problems on campus systemic and said CUVA has “become an advocate for the kind of stuff that’s been happening to us.”

Cornell often does not process veterans’ financial forms in a timely manner, forcing many veterans to find an alternate source of money before the aid is available, Murphy said.

David Outlaw ’17, co-founder and co-chair of CUVA, joined the U.S. Navy in 2007 and served at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, where he was a logistics specialist aboard a nuclear attack submarine, and at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy.

Outlaw said when he initially applied to the Yellow Ribbon program for alternative funding beyond the G.I. Bill, he called the Office of Financial Aid only “to speak with several personnel who had never heard of the Yellow Ribbon program.” He said that eventually, his application was filed directly by Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis.

“Although I was grateful for his assistance, the Office of Financial Aid should have more personnel trained on what the Yellow Ribbon fund is and who the point of contact is,” Outlaw said.

Cornell accepted 100 undergraduate students and 73 graduate and professional students for the 2015-16 academic year under the Yellow Ribbon program, an increase from 40 undergraduates and 50 graduates from 2013-14, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

With the exception of Weill Cornell Medicine, the University has no maximum school contribution amount — how much the school will offer in addition to the V.A. — because the enrollment maximum of the Yellow Ribbon program, which Cornell determines, is finite.

Other schools in New York, such as Columbia University, Ithaca College and Syracuse University, have an unlimited number of spots for their Yellow Ribbon program, although they do not necessarily offer unlimited financial assistance, which Cornell could potentially offer.

Veterans at Cornell argued that not only do they receive insufficient funding, but that because of the cap, Cornell also limits the number of veterans that could attend — a problem that Cornell has partially alleviated by increasing the number of capped spots through the Yellow Ribbon program from 40 to 100.

“I strongly encourage Cornell to increase the slots available for the Yellow Ribbon fund, or to remove the cap altogether,” Outlaw said. “With Cornell’s cap on Yellow Ribbon funding slots, the ‘any person’ part of our motto is only partly true. It would be a tragedy to lose well-qualified talent to other schools, merely because of financial constraints.”

Johnson said another issue faced by veterans is the lack of information they have during the semester about their financial situation.

“I completely ignore my bursar account, because it’s never right,” he said. “It’s never ever right.”

After changes were made last year on the state level to assist veterans with college tuition, Johnson claimed that Cornell did not reach out to assist those who were affected.

“After a few weeks, I made a phone call, and what I heard was that ‘Well, we weren’t sure how many of you were out there, most people just call us at some point and let us know what’s going on,’” Johnson said. “[They were] just waiting for us to make the phone call while we’re at school, while we may have families, while we’re doing other things, while some of us [are] still reserve.”

Timothy Wilson ’15 served in the Navy from 2005 to 2011 in active duty and as inactive reserve from 2011 to 2013. While Wilson had trouble with the Yellow Ribbon program, calling it a “nightmare to deal with,” he also expressed concerns with the housing allowance provided through the G.I. Bill.

“I found out that Cornell was applying my housing allowance to tuition, which is meant to pay for my rent, not school,” Wilson said. “This meant that I had a credit balance with Cornell that they didn’t actually receive. So when I took out a loan of $15,000 to pay for the remaining balance and to pay my rent for the rest of the semester, Cornell took almost all of it.”

Johnson said that while some of these housing concerns are serious inconveniences for individuals, they can make life even more difficult for students who have to support others.

“I have a family, which is different than some of the other [veterans],” Johnson said. “Some of the others don’t have a family, so you can camp out on someone’s couch, and that’s no big deal. When you have a family, you can’t put your whole family on someone else’s couch. You have to dip into your savings, put it on a credit card or take out a loan.”

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ROTC members stand at Cornell’s Veterans Day Ceremony in Barton Hall last Wednesday. (Hui Tong / Sun Staff Photographer)

Wilson said part of the issue with financing is that the V.A. won’t release funds until they receive a certificate of enrollment from a university, and once they have received the certificates, they are processed in the order received.

“When it takes an additional four weeks for them to get the certificate you can imagine we are at the back of the line,” Wilson said. “This means no rent money and no book money until about two months into the semester. Most of us can’t afford this.”

While he did say this year was a marked improvement in processing speed, Wilson said he believes there are still ways to improve the process further.

“I would like them to streamline the financial aid process, and to have a contact who specializes in veteran applications,” Wilson said. “It seems ridiculous that we have to apply for the same programs every semester when it’s clear the assistance is needed.”

Murphy said his friends at other universities have access to a veteran resource center with a V.A. certified official to help with processing the necessary paperwork.

“They’re kind of your liaison between the university and other off campus [resources] like networking and scholarships,” Murphy said. “They have these kind of vet centers or vet counselors, so to speak, to help guide you through this transition from military to civilian life.”

According to Cassandre Pierre Joseph, director of diversity engagement for the department of inclusion and workforce diversity, Cornell does have visits from a State Veteran Counselors through the Cornell’s Veterans Colleague Network Group — a University sponsored resource group for employees. One of the counselor’s roles is to help veterans receive their V.A. educational benefits, but some veterans said they would appreciate a staff member on campus to aid with the process.

“The University needs a permanent veterans’ resource official and allocated office space to support veterans,” Outlaw said. “Having this official on campus would take the weight off of various veteran faculty members who volunteer their time and resources to assist veterans. The resource official would serve as the main point of contact for prospective student veterans, enrolled student veterans and outside organizations.”

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