December 7, 2021
Dear Senators and Representatives of the 117th Congress,
For 77 years, America’s veterans have been able to use GI Bill education benefits to further their education after leaving the Armed Forces. Veterans have used this vital benefit to learn how to open and run businesses, to become doctors and lawyers, to learn important trade skills, and much more. For the entire history of this benefit, veterans have been able to freely use their benefits at whatever legitimate institution of higher learning they wanted—until now.
Recently, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs has made changes to the program approval process for universities to be able to participate in the GI Bill program. Some of these changes were required by law, but others were the result of overzealous interpretations of the law or the VA’s aging technical infrastructure. Regardless of the causes, these changes have hit overseas veteran students the hardest. Records show that between 1,500 and 3,000 veterans1 typically utilize their GI Bill benefits at overseas universities each year, but those students’ ability to utilize their earned benefits is now in danger. These new rules imposed on universities create three giant hurdles for student veterans to cross.
First, overseas veterans have reported problems with communication between the VA, their university, and the veteran. Schools are required to submit an application for approval prior to a student veteran being cleared to use their GI Bill benefits, and the VA’s response time is unacceptably slow. In one case, it took the VA several months to respond to the university. That veteran was stuck between his university claiming that it has sent multiple follow-up requests to the VA and the VA claiming that it had responded in a timely fashion to the university—but that veteran has no way of verifying either claim, nor do they have a way to make this process move along faster. That veteran has been fighting for at least six months just to get basic information about where his school's application is in the approvals process. This problem was exacerbated by the closure of VA’s Foreign Schools Approval Office.
Then the VA sends a list of about 40 additional, onerous requirements that were not previously required.2 Among these requirements are whether or not universities are complying with various local laws that the VA cannot reasonably verify, a copy of the university’s entire academic catalog translated into English, personal information about the university’s staff and faculty, and much more. Another requirement, created by the January 2021 Isakson-Roe bill,3 cited by multiple overseas universities as a primary problem is a new reporting requirement about enrollment at the university. Universities located in the United Kingdom, Australia, the European Union, and other countries with similar privacy laws cannot legally furnish personal information about students, faculty, or staff, so they are not legally able to comply with the VA’s new requirements.
If a veteran and their university can get past the first two hurdles, there is still another issue they must face. In order for a university to receive tuition payments from the VA, the university must open a bank account with a U.S. financial institution and apply for a U.S. Employer Identification Number through the IRS. This extra burden on overseas universities is unnecessary, and after questioning the VA admitted that the requirement is solely due to their legacy electronic payment system that cannot process payments to foreign financial institutions. We maintain that this is an unacceptable reason to deny veterans their earned education benefits.
The 117th Congress must fix this problem. Veterans earned their education benefits by sacrificing years of their lives, and oftentimes their health, to serve in the United States Armed Forces. We cannot abide by veterans losing access to their earned benefits simply because of where they reside or where they would like to receive an education. Many overseas veterans have been unable to utilize their benefits because of these changes, and some have seen their GI Bill benefits expire while they have waited for the VA to approve their academic programs. Congress and the VA must address this issue by, at a minimum, accomplishing the following:
Re-establishing the Foreign Schools Approval Office to improve communication between overseas universities and the VA;
Providing a legislative carve-out of reporting requirements for overseas universities that violate privacy laws;
Updating the VA’s legacy electronic payment system to be able to process payments to foreign financial institutions;
Requiring that, when the VA reports to Congress about its education benefits, the VA have specific reporting requirements about veterans utilizing their benefits overseas; and
Extending the education benefits eligibility window of veterans adversely affected by these changes who are not covered by the “Forever GI Bill” by two years at a minimum.
Democrats Abroad International Chair
Democrats Abroad Global Veterans and Military Families Caucus Chair
Office of the International Chair of Democrats Abroad
1. According to VA statistics released in Annual Benefits Reports. Data was taken from fiscal years 2014-2020. Historical reports are available here.↩