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UI reaches out to aid veterans

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | MAY 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Just separated from active duty in the Persian Gulf last summer, Adam Connell said he didn't have any plans completed to begin an academic career.

"I was freaking out," said the 24-year-old UI freshman in the Navy Reserve.

But Connell said veteran officials at the UI helped him get on course and begin his studies with no issues.

Despite a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report identifying several problems in the post-9/11 GI Bill program, UI officials said they have worked to minimize these issues, and veterans agreed the effort has paid off.

The report listed inadequate communication between universities and Veterans' Affairs Offices, staffing issues, and a lack of program guidance. The shift to the new GI Bill caused many of the problems, said Herald "Skip" Kempnich, who formerly handled UI student veterans' requests for financial aid and who has worked with the GI Bill since 1981.

"The communication lines sometimes break down in the process," he said. "They are so worried about giving bad information, they give no information at all."

Even at the UI, officials have had problems under the new bill. For example, federal officials are often late in asking the UI to repay any extra money it might have received because of changes to veterans' registration, causing confusion in the Financial Aid Office.

"The GAO report — this is the kind of thing we don't want to continue happening," said UI Registrar Larry Lockwood. "We don't want to hurt the veterans, so we want to make sure they have their money."

Currently, 383 of the 400 veterans at the UI receive some form of education benefits through Veteran Affairs, Lockwood said. The most recent GI Bill was launched in August 2009, and it has since helped fund roughly $5.7 billion for 381,000 veterans and service members under the post-9/11 bill, according to the report.

Despite the report, the problems are nothing new to universities.

The UI, along with schools nationwide, experienced general "confusion" of where and how much money to send to schools and veterans when the bill first went into effect, Kempnich said.

"[The report is the government's] way of saying, 'We know there are things wrong, and we're trying to fix it,' " Kempnich said. "A lot of those reports, when they say they're working on it, you never know what that means."

Numerous departments in the university — the billing, Registrar's, and Financial Aid Offices — handle funds for veterans in addition to money directly received by veterans, a process that can be confusing, Kempnich said.

Dennis Arps, who took over Kempnich's position, said UI veterans officials have focused on flexibility to avoid those issues.

"The University of Iowa Financial Aid department and university billing have been very flexible in working with individual students on a case by case as needed basis," he wrote in an e-mail.

And Connell said UI officials have always been more than willing to help veterans one-on-one. Once, when he was unsure if he would be able to pay registration fees, Lockwood and other officials personally made sure Connell was covered.

"They work miracles sometimes," said Connell, who said no one he knows has experienced issues at the UI with the GI Bill.

Kempnich agreed the UI has been proactive with working with veterans. When the Veterans Affairs Office is about to send the UI billing office funds for a student, the office immediately marks the deposit in the student's account to make sure it's accounted for, Kempnich said.

"I don't ever remember losing a veteran for money reasons," he said.


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