Shinseki, UNC system talks aid for student veterans

Jun. 11, 2013 @ 09:02 PM

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said that veterans’ discipline, skills and maturity can help both North Carolina’s quality of education and its economy.

Shinseki and UNC system President Tom Ross met with journalists Tuesday at the UNC Spangler Center to talk about the university system’s efforts to aid student veterans and the benefits that veterans can bring to the state.

The UNC Board of Governors will discuss various policies regarding students connected to the military at its meeting Thursday. These policies include residency status, transfer student status, military credit transfer options, and withdrawal and re-entrance for students called to duty.

Shinseki, who had earlier met with Ross and heard from the system’s chancellors, said that Ross spoke with him about the system’s “vision” for educating veterans — a vision made possible by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, the bill allows veterans who have served for at least 90 total days since September 10, 2001, or who have been discharged after 30 days with a disability due to service, to receive benefits for their school tuition and fees. Servicemembers can also apply for their dependents to use the benefits.

Shinseki said that the bill has assisted 978,000 people since 2009, and that the department pays about $27 million per day in education grants.

According to the UNC system’s website, there were 6,589 GI Bill recipients in spring 2012. East Carolina University saw the greatest number of recipients.

During the media meeting, President Ross referred to the UNC system’s new strategic plan — approved earlier this year — and said that veterans are an important part of the plan’s aim to increase education attainment in the state.

“We have (had) and expect even more people leaving active duty in North Carolina, separating from our bases here, and we hope many of them will stay here,” Ross said.

He said he thinks that those who attend school here will stay in the state, which is helpful for North Carolina in many ways.

“It helps us meet our goals of having an educated populace that can meet the talent demands of the business community and our economy as we move forward,” Ross said, adding that veterans bring a “global perspective” and a unique experience not learned in school.

Shinseki compared Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to WWII veterans, who benefited from the original GI Bill of 1944, and said that today’s veterans will assist in rebuilding the middle class.

“When they do that, they will return every dollar invested in them by strengthening America, much as the greatest generation did following World War II with the original GI Bill,” Shinseki said. “I say they’ve done it before; they will do it again.”

Shinseki, who attended graduate school at Duke University, said that although he’s seen presentations aimed at improving veteran education on individual campuses, he hasn’t seen a university-wide effort like UNC’s before.

Ross said the UNC system is helping veterans in various ways. He said they have an office in Fort Bragg’s education center and plan to create an office at Camp Lejeune. He also said many campuses have organizations that support veterans. Additionally, the system’s online presence is meant to help veterans.

“We’re increasing our online opportunities, which we think will benefit both active duty and veterans,” Ross said. “We’re developing some web portals that will help our veterans find their way into our system and into our various campuses and see what kind of degree programs are available.”

When asked, Ross mentioned that the issue of in-state versus out-of-state tuition arose in talks earlier that day.

“It is a barrier for us,” Ross said. “We’ve been working with the legislature and hope to continue to work with the legislature to change the residency requirement to allow us to provide an exception for veterans as they separate in North Carolina, and for us to be able to offer in-state tuition.”

Ross said that the House budget included money for the “transition to in-state tuition for veterans,” but that the system would continue working with the Senate and House.

Shinseki, in response to the backlog of disability claims at Winston-Salem’s VA office, said his department will do as much as possible to fix “longstanding” problems.

“We are a paper-based system, have been for decades. We have been on combat-operations for 12 years now, and so there’s been a growth in requirement. Paper processes aren’t very efficient.”

Shinseki said that this year is a transition year for the Veterans Benefits Management System, an automation system that will take the place of the paper-system.

“Here, in the next year or so, we’ll watch the backlog just begin to be taken down,” Shinseki said. “2015 still remains our target date (to be rid of the backlog). If we can beat it, we will.”