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Official pushes for student veterans center

When he speaks with veterans about the biggest problem they have with achieving a higher education, Skip Gebhart hears one complaint more than any other.

"Not getting their money," said Gebhart, the director of veterans' education and training for the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

There are several reasons why veterans have a problem getting aid to which they are entitled, he said. Sometimes there is a paperwork issue - either from the students, school or Veterans Affairs - or a lack of understanding from those involved about what programs apply in particular circumstances.

The commission hosted a Veteran Friendly Campus Symposium Tuesday on the campus of West Virginia State University to discuss ways to fix those issues. It's the second year in a row for the event, with about 70 administrators from around the state registered for the event, Gebhart said.

The symposium is important because right now many counselors, academic advisers and other administrators who interact with veteran students are not on the same page about available services, Gebhart said.

"They're students first, but they do bring a set of (characteristics) that non-veterans don't have," Gebhart said.

Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said there are several different financial aid programs available to veterans. They include variations of the GI Bill and depend on years of service and other factors.

Applying for and receiving those benefits can be an arduous process, she admitted, but the VA is serving more students than ever before.

"When the rest of the nation has been struggling through the economic position, we've pushed $22 billion into academia," Hickey said.

There are issues with making sure every veteran gets his or her benefits in a timely manner, Hickey said. After World War II, she said veterans would cite about two medical issues per benefit claim. For today's veterans, she said that number has jumped to 15 medical issues per claim. That's due in part to advances in recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder and other extended benefits.

She suggested a few changes that schools could make to help veterans.

First, she said schools should send student information to the VA as soon as possible. Second, officials at the school should keep themselves updated on changes to laws and regulations. Third, she said schools should partner with local veterans success centers.

Right now, Gebhart said some schools need to improve services, but most are doing a good job. His department has been particularly interested in monitoring for-profit schools in the state he said, citing a recent legislative report highlighting large recruitment efforts by the schools for veteran students.

There are 3,100 veterans living in West Virginia and attending schools physically located in the state, he said.

There are about 15,000 to 16,000 total veteran students attending West Virginia schools, though: A great portion of that difference is made up by enrollment in the online-only American Public University System, Gebhart said.

Hickey applauded quality online education programs for veterans, and Gebhart said APUS is providing a better service than many for-profit institutions.

"We don't have the problems a lot of states have with some proprietary schools," Gebhart said, specifically mentioning APUS.

"They fill a niche that WVU and Marshall don't fill," he continued.

Focusing on the needs of active military and veteran students in particular, and having a large number of staff members who are veterans helps APUS better understand its students, said George Vukovich, the school's associate vice president for military affiliated programs.

There are challenges involved in interacting with any students at an online university, Vukovich said. APUS constantly tries to address those issues, Vukovich said.

"We recognize the challenges posed by PTSD and isolationism, and need to focus even more closely on providing our students a robust means of effectively dealing with these issues," Vukovich said in a statement emailed by a spokesman.

"However, sometimes that distance helps them with adjustment to the learning environment since they can engage with fellow students and faculty in the electronic classroom from the comfort of their home environment."

Hickey said students should understand exactly what they're signing up for when they enroll in online education.

Paul Hill, chancellor of the policy commission, said they should understand it is going to take a lot of self-motivation and drive to complete online coursework.

He believes measures headed to the legislation in the upcoming session will make more information about these and all for-profit programs easily accessible to students. But he admits the commission needs to do more in passing along that information.

"Skip needs more support," he said.   

That means people and money, Gebhart said. He wants to create a state center for veterans excellence specifically aimed at providing information on veteran services to students and school administrators. 

At the federal level, there are several websites aimed at helping students, Hickey said. They include vetsuccess.gov and ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits-portal/. 

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843, david.boucher@dailymail.com or twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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