ANAHEIM, CALIF. — In a session at the recent Pacific Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers annual conference, Chryssa Jones, National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators public relations chair for the University of California, Riverside, shared recent updates to legislation affecting student-veterans on college and university campuses. Stay on top of these legislative updates to make sure that your campus is serving student-veterans effectively while avoiding potentially costly fines or audits.

Be prepared to waive fees for nonresident student-veterans

Recent updates to Section 702 of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which officially went into effect on July 1, 2015, include waiving nonresidency tuition and fee requirements for student-veterans and their dependents. Institutions of higher education found to be charging nonresidence tuition and fees to eligible students are liable to lose their campuswide veteran benefits. Jones went on to elaborate about a campus’s responsibilities under this rule. Eligible students are students who:

  • Must be in receipt of VA Chapter 30 or 33 benefits post–July 1, 2015.
  • Must be separated from active duty no more than three years prior to application term or July 1, 2015 — whichever is later.
  • Must be using benefits under Ch. 30 or 33, not be residents of the state, and meet the requirements outlined above.

Jones specified that granting students resident-rate tuition does not establish residency. Campuses are allowed to extend the above guidelines beyond the law (for example, extending resident tuition and fees to student-veterans who served more than three years ago), but if a student does meet the guidelines for being charged residency tuition and is not, then institutions must indicate and document why that choice has been made and have that justification on file in case of audit. “Best practices are to do registration first and then follow VACA [guidelines],” Jones said, advising institutions that it’s best to enroll students and then determine which ones don’t meet the residency tuition qualifications.

Mitigating circumstances affect student enrollment, campus reporting policies

Jones delivered news regarding how legislative changes will affect campus reporting of students who invoke “mitigating circumstances” for withdrawing from a course or enrollment. The mitigating circumstances program has been around since 2009, Jones said. Mitigating circumstances are circumstances beyond the control of the student and that prevent the student from continuing in his courses or on campus. Institutions are no longer required to report to the VA if they have documentation of mitigating circumstances affecting nonpunitive grades for student-veterans and should only report mitigating circumstances if the official reason is on file.

The notation of “mitigating circumstances” on a transcript can also affect the amount of debt a student accrues during a semester. Starting November 1, 2015, if a student-veteran faces circumstances where she must drop the course midway through the semester and the institution does not apply mitigating circumstances to her transcript, the VA is liable to charge a student-veteran for the entire semester and not just the portion of the semester that she attended courses. Jones noted that this does not necessarily affect a student’s grade but only her student debt. Although the institution is not responsible for the student debt, the documentation is important in case of institutionwide audit (although Jones let participants know that the VA would also be holding a file on the student’s mitigating circumstances grades and debt accrual). Jones also let participants know the mitigating circumstances can be applied retroactively, as long as a student’s last day of attendance date can be determined. “I do believe in talking to students before [they drop a class] so they can be aware of all ramifications, including financial [they might face],” Jones said.

Updates to guidelines for reasonable efforts to obtain transcripts

Determining credit for student-veterans based on prior-year transcripts is notoriously difficult, with military credit, multitudes of online and brick campuses to contend with and military honors to determine. Jones gave instructions for registrars to review all prior transcripts before students attend an institution and to come up with self-imposed guidelines for articulating credit on campus and noted institutions may not certify a student beyond two terms without all transcripts reviewed. The school certifying officer must document all transcripts received; however, students (and institutions) are only required to make a reasonable effort to obtain transcripts. “Before, campuses could review case by case, but now it’s become clear: if a student makes a reasonable attempt [to obtain transcripts] and can’t obtain [transcripts], just document it and move forward,” Jones said. The VA does not provide guidelines on what constitutes a reasonable attempt, but Jones noted certain student hardships are not included, such as debt or the expense of obtaining transcripts.

If an institution allows a student to enroll without previously reviewing all transcripts and determining certification and credit for courses, an institution must decertify a course if a student takes it for credit after already previously meeting that requirement. In that case, the institution would be responsible for the debt for tuition (but students still shoulder responsibility of cost for housing). An institution has the right to refuse to enroll a student until a review of all transcripts has been completed, but this rule must be applied to all students and not just student-veterans.

“There’s a lot of confusion about what makes an institution deemed approved [for educational benefits for student-veterans],” Jones said. One common source of confusion is that although an institution may be deemed approved for VA educational benefits, that doesn’t cover all programs within that institution. Those programs not automatically covered by an institutional approval include: nondegree programs, credential programs, certificates and programs offered by third-party providers, all of which must all be approved separately from the institution. This includes programs that use contracted elements, including contracted space and/or faculty — all programs, to be included under the banner of an institution deemed approved, must be provided solely by the institution.

One very important aspect of being deemed approved is the 85:15 program enrollment rule: enrollment of any single program must be less than 85 percent veterans at any given time. Although this is almost certain to be the case for any given program, Jones said that often small, specialty programs with high enrollments of student-veterans can run into trouble when only a few students graduate, skewing proportions of students to student-veterans dramatically. “Schools must document the enrollment for every program,” Jones said, adding that this 85:15 ratio does not apply only to veterans receiving benefits, but to any student who has served as a veteran (even those who don’t self-identify) and includes dependents. Many institutions offer student-veterans priority enrollment and must be sure that although student-veterans are given priority, the 85:15 ratio is maintained programwide. Sometimes institutions must stop enrollment in any given program or course until the enrollment ratio is balanced. Jones said this measure was part of recent efforts to regulate predatory institutions that were creating programs just for veterans. Establishing professional or MBA programs just for student-veterans, for example, creates this type of imbalance, although Jones said that programs are allowed to set up veteran-specific sections within the program itself.

New comparison tool may affect enrollment

In 2015, the Department of Education rolled out a new version of its GI Bill Comparison Tool. The new features included in the revamped version of the Comparison Tool include caution flags for student-veteran complaints, outcome measures and feedback. Jones also noted that the new version of the Comparison Tool only calculates student-veterans receiving benefits; first-time students; and students registered as full-time based on Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System data. Using this data can give student-veterans false outcomes data for many institutions, Jones said, citing that UC Riverside itself has many student-veterans but none are first-time students, so the university cannot report any student-veteran graduates. In addition, the Comparison Tool records student-veterans transferring out of institutions but no transfer-in rates. “Unfortunately there’s no way around it based on the data the VA is using at this time,” Jones said, adding that it’s a good idea to let higher administration know early on that the Comparison Tool might be skewing enrollment and completion outcomes for student-veterans.

Finally, Jones recommended two tools for anyone on campus looking to better serve their student-veterans, as well as how to comply with regulations. The American Council on Education’s Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions offers resources including webinars; PDFs; and best practices on financial aid, student services and creating a successful veterans services program at https://vetfriendlytoolkit.acenet.edu/Pages/default.aspx. In addition, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers webinars and other training resources for higher education administrators at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/school_training_resources.asp.

Upcoming bills that might affect your campus

Looking forward to bills currently under consideration, Jones outlined a few of the more salient pieces of veterans higher education legislation that might affect campuses in the next few months, including:

  • H.R. 3016: Allows institutions to have student-veteran entitlement and eligibility information; removes discharge requirements for dependents under VACA; provides funding to the VA for better technology (possibly updating the GI Bill Comparison Tool); extends definition of educational institution to other organizations, like third-party providers; and reduces frequency of audits to institutions with clean records.
  • H.R. 478: Expands entitlement to benefits in science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors.
  • H.R. 1141: Counts time served by reservists under medical care toward post-9/11 GI eligibility and extends oversight of VA vocational rehabilitation programs for fairness and consistency.

Source: Dean & Provost