The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP): Good idea, flawed execution

In 2011, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. Included in the law is the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP). The program, administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), provides unemployed veterans between the ages of 35-60 with up to 12 months of training assistance for high demand jobs (PDF opens in new window).

According to the VRAP website, assistance is provided to eligible veterans who attend training full time and is equal to the monthly full-time payment rate under the Montgomery GI Bill–Active Duty program ($1,564 effective October 1, 2012). The program is limited to 45,000 participants from July 1, 2012, through September 30, 2012, and 54,000 participants from October 1, 2012, through March 31, 2014.

A good idea

According to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs web page for the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, when the Act was passed the Department of Labor reported that there were 3.4 million jobs open in the United States, but that many employers were finding that workers did not have the skills or training needed to qualify for them. At the same time, there were almost 900,000 unemployed veterans in the United States, two-thirds of whom were between the ages of 35 and 64 – the group with the highest financial obligations and the fewest available VA education and training options.

Pairing 99,000 of these unemployed, older veterans with high demand jobs through VRAP seemed to be a good idea. However, Veterans Affairs has had problems implementing the program. There have been 122,002 applications and 105,639 approvals, but less than half of the approved veterans – 51,639 – are enrolled in training.

vrap-counter-june-08-2013

Flawed execution

What is keeping eligible, VRAP approved veterans from enrolling in training? Three big hurdles: restrictions on which schools veterans can attend for training, restrictions on courses that can be taken, and mandatory full-time enrollment.

School restrictions

According to the VRAP website:

Participants must be enrolled in a VA approved program of education offered by a community college or technical school. The program must lead to an Associate Degree, Non-College Degree, or a Certificate, and train the Veteran for a high demand occupation.

VRAP participants are not allowed to attend four year colleges and universities that offer certificate and associate degree programs. This is problematic for many veterans located in rural areas where regional senior colleges provide the only opportunities for vocational and career education.

Also, initially, VRAP participants were prohibited from attending community and technical colleges that offered even one bachelor degree. Community and technical colleges offering bachelor degrees is a growing trend. In some states, like Florida, every single state-supported community or technical college offers at least one bachelor degree. Under VRAP’s initial rules, these schools were off-limits.

Congressman Jeff Miller (R - FL)

Congressman Jeff Miller (R – Florida)
Photo credit: http://veterans.house.gov/about/chair

In an article titled “VA Almost Screws Up VRAP – Congress Steps In”, Benjamin Krause, founder of DisabledVeterans.org, writes that the office of Congressman Jeff Miller (R-Florida) – Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs – contacted him to tell him that Veterans Affairs misinterpreted the intent of Congress when it disqualified community colleges that offered bachelor degrees. Krause quotes the Chairman as saying,

The original intent of the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program was to give unemployed veterans the chance to acquire the skills needed to become more competitive in the work force. The majority of the feedback I have received has been encouraging. It was recently brought to my attention, however, that VA had no plans to include community colleges that also awarded Bachelor degrees in VRAP. This was viewed by the Committee as failing to comply with the spirit of the law, as this opportunity was designed to assist veterans in finding employment, not create more roadblocks. I congratulate and thank VA for rethinking its original position and making a smart decision to allow veterans who are eligible for VRAP to attend community colleges that also offer a very limited number of award bachelors’ degrees. VRAP is a tremendous tool to help reduce the unemployment rate among veterans. VA’s reversal serves as a step forward as we begin the implementation phase of the many components of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. I would like to thank Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Gus Bilirakis for taking the lead on this issue to ensure veterans enrolled in VRAP get the full benefits promised.

Attendance restrictions

VRAP participants must maintain full-time attendance for the entirety of their programs. Full-time attendance is enrollment in a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester or 18 credit hours per quarter. The VRAP guidelines are strict and there is no wiggle room.

The result is that approved veterans, like former Marine Juliet Owen, are finding themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Ms. Owen has only one semester left in the Licensed Practical Nursing program at Rockingham Community College in North Carolina, but she is ineligible for continued VRAP benefit payments because she needs 11 credit hours to finish.

Course restrictions

Veterans approved for VRAP are not allowed to take any courses that are not required for their program. If a veteran needs to change programs or schools, all of the courses taken under their initial VRAP enrollment must transfer to their new school, or into their new program. Veterans who need to take remedial courses before entering their career program cannot take them online.

For Ms. Owen, this means that VRAP will not pay for the one extra credit she needs to meet the full-time attendance requirement, because the course would fall outside of the curriculum for her career program.

Practical considerations

Information about how many VRAP-eligible veterans already have college credits was not available. This could be important to know because it could help explain why so few people have actually enrolled in training. All colleges require applicants to submit transcripts of their prior college work regardless of how old the credits are. The goal of many colleges is to get students graduated as soon as possible, and to that end it is not uncommon for colleges to accept credits more than twenty years old (to fulfill elective and general education requirements) to get students out of the door sooner. However, for veterans using VRAP benefits and subject to VRAP’s full-time attendance guideline, the transcript policy could work against them.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the older veterans targeted by VRAP already have some college credits; the likelihood is probably pretty high. This could result in many of them being unable to meet the full-time enrollment requirement at some point in their training. For those veterans who find out, at the beginning of their retraining journey, that they will not be able to take enough credits to meet the full-time attendance requirements, they are finished before they start. It would not be surprising if scenarios like the one just described are contributing to the low number of veterans actually enrolling in training.

Then, there’s the problem of VRAP being scheduled to end on March 31, 2014, which is the middle of the semester at most colleges. VRAP benefits are paid monthly, not by semester, and most veterans have monthly tuition payment plans in place with their schools. What are they to do if their payments stop two, or in some cases three, months before the semester ends? For students who are at the end of their programs, this could prevent graduation and the issuance of a diploma, or official transcripts, for employment purposes.

VRAP’s future

Apparently, it has been brought to Congressman Miller’s attention that if VRAP does end in March 2014, as scheduled, many veterans will not be able to fulfill the remainder of their semester’s financial obligations to their schools. According to the article “Lawmaker wants more time for vets on VRAP” by Rick Maze, on the ArmyTimes.com website, the Congressman has proposed a three month extension of VRAP benefits, until June 30, 2014. The extension would have to pass the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president in order to take effect, a process that could take the entire year, according to Maze’s article.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt)

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)
Photo credit: http://www.sanders.senate.gov

Taking things even further is Miller’s Senate counterpart, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Senator Sanders is co-sponsoring legislation, with Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), to extend VRAP for two more years. The Putting Our Veterans Back to Work Act of 2013, known as Senate bill 6, would reauthorize the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 and extend it from its original termination date of March 31, 2014 to March 31, 2016.

However, according to the ArmyTimes.com article, Congressman Miller isn’t ready to make that leap. The article quotes him saying “Before extending VRAP beyond 2014 or to additional participants, we need to have an honest conversation about its effectiveness.”

Hopefully, an honest conversation about the short-comings that have negatively impacted VRAP’s implementation, and therefore its effectiveness, can be had. If the program can be improved, it will be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

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8 thoughts on “The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP): Good idea, flawed execution

  1. I am a 49 year old Disabaled Vet in the Vrap program, I have been attending since Jan 2013, my benefits will run out in Jan 2014 and I will not be finished with my Degree in Applied Science. I will be 1 semeter short of finishing, 11 creidts to graduate. I will be in same position as begining the program no degree.

    • Jeff, depending on where you live there may be state grants available to you to help reduce the cost of that last semester of 11 credits you need. If your income is low enough, and you don’t already have a 4-year degree, you may also be eligible for a Pell Grant. I know that in my state of South Carolina we have what’s called the Lottery Grant. Every community college student in the state is automatically awarded it, even if they already have a 4-year degree, and as long as they stay in good academic standing they continue to get it until they’re finished.

      Also, if you have no choice but to apply for a student loan you want to go for a Perkins Loan first because the interest rate is lower. However, a lot of community colleges don’t have Perkins Loans and only have Direct Loans. It may be worth it to take out a small one just for that one last semester – just make sure you ONLY borrow what you need to cover tuition and fees. A $500-$2000 Direct Loan will have a small monthly repayment, which you should be able to pay off with no problem once you get your degree and start working. And, even if it takes you a while to find work, the amount should be small enough for you to work it into your budget. Don’t say you can’t afford the small repayment, because you probably can. You’ll just have to be willing to sacrifice something else temporarily, if need be. Nobody gets something for nothing. How badly do you want it?

      As far as paying for books and uniforms/equipment (if required) go, you’ll come out cheaper buying used books via Amazon, Half.com, Ebay, renting from sites like Chegg.com, or buying from other used/discount online book sellers like Bookbyte.com, etc. If you want to verify if a site is legit, feel free to email me with the name of the site and a link to it and I’ll let you know. I have LOTS AND LOTS of experience sourcing affordable textbook/supplies options. Then, there’s your local Freecycle (Google it). You may find not only books you need but maybe also uniforms, and maybe supplies (ex: a medical assisting student needing a stethoscope).

      Also, don’t forget about your school’s library or the PUBLIC LIBRARY. Even if they don’t have a book, they can probably get it for you via Interlibrary Loan; you just need to find out what books you need well in advance. Sometimes professors put copies of textbooks on what’s called “reserve”. Reserve books can only be used in the library, but it’s better than nothing when you need to do your reading. I recommend no less than a three week lead time before your classes start for Interlibrary Loan requests (there may be a small fee; I did a request a couple of weeks ago and when the book came in I had to pay $1.00).

      Don’t be afraid to use a book that’s 1-2 editions older than the book your instructor says you need. The chapters may be in a different order, and the pics may be different, but the material will pretty much still be the same and you can use your syllabus to match up the relevant chapters to your course outline. For science and math books, I don’t recommend more than 1 edition older, and if you have problem sets for homework just use a classmate’s CURRENT EDITION book to double-check that the assigned problems are the same; if not take a pic of the problems, from your classmate’s book, with your cell phone and then transfer them to your My Documents folder on your computer to view them full-size. Save a tree and don’t print the problems out if you don’t need to.

      Lastly, if there are other colleges near you, you can get a library card from them and check books out as a member of the community. It might cost a few dollars, but if you have access to books your public library or school library doesn’t have it’s cheaper than buying them. I’ve used ALL of these methods and they have worked well for me. Just be aware that sometimes you’re going to have to bite the bullet and just buy what you need brand new and pay the retail price. But, if you’re diligent about using these alternative methods, you probably won’t have to do that often. That’s been my experience at least. I hope this has helped you and I wish you good luck.

  2. I too began VRAP in January 2013, and will finish receiving benefits in December of 2013 (with 1 month, 19 days remaining eligible). I have been able to maintain a full-time status so far, but the further you get in your program, the fewer classes that you need are offered, and the ability to maintain full-time status will ultimately be impossible (unless you are incredibly lucky). I planned everything out, but have no control over my institution scheduling certain classes with prerequisites required only 1 term per year (especially if its an abbreviated summer term). In the final analysis (while I greatly appreciate this opportunity), this program will fail as most participants will not be able to schedule needed classes when available, much less complete a two-year degree program with a pro-rated 12 month eligibility funded program. I do have a question if anyone knows. If the program gets extended until June 2013, will I receive additional benefits beyond the “12 months” to complete the Spring term 2014, or is the “12 month” eligibility still over, if so, no need to extend in my case?

    • The only way a veteran can complete a 2-year degree in 12 months or less under VRAP is if they already have at least a year of transferable college credits – and that’s not taking into account having to maintain full-time status at all times. As far as the funding is concerned, as I replied to “geo”, if the VRAP program was truly created to benefit older, unemployed veterans then it would’ve been planned and implemented better and there wouldn’t be so many barriers to full use. VRAP was a publicity stunt for politicians to make themselves look good.

      I don’t know the answer to your question. My best suggestion is to contact the VRAP department and ask – just be sure to ask to speak to a supervisor as they usually know more than the floor reps (I used to work in a call center). Then call several times, over several days, to talk to several different supervisors to see if they all tell you the same thing. If they don’t, press the issue and demand a correct answer. This will take patience and it would be best to use a land line phone to call, because you may be on hold for a long time while the supervisor searches for the right answer and the wait will eat up your cell phone minutes. Good luck!

  3. While the VRAP has been beneficial to me I do have a gripe. The monthly dollar amount is posted as $1564/mo. Nowhere during the process from application to acceptance and use were we told that this amount is only allotted when school is in session for the full month. When school is between semesters, the veteran student get a prorated deposit, which works out to about $51/day. Apparently it was felt that we don’t have a need to know this important fact. How can we budget responsibly and accurately if we are not apprised of the reality? C’mon now.

    • I remember reading about pro-rating on the VRAP website, but it didn’t go into deep detail. However, the basic pro-rating information *was* there. Nonetheless, the VRAP contact at your school (you did have to meet with them, right?) should have fully explained how payments and pro-rating worked early in your registration process. I hope you were able to adjust and budget well after such a shock.

  4. “Pairing 99,000 of these unemployed, older veterans with high demand jobs through VRAP seemed to be a good idea. However, Veterans Affairs has had problems implementing the program. There have been 122,002 applications and 105,639 approvals, but less than half of the approved veterans – 51,639 – are enrolled in training.”

    Just because “less than half of the approved vets – are enrolled” and each person has their own set of loose ends to iron out, does not mean the rest of us have to suffer by letting us finish our programs by June instead of March 2014.
    At least we know that SOME people are out there using the benefit. Shouldn’t this be enough without having to “sell to congress” ?

    • Your point supports my analysis that while VRAP was/is a good idea in THEORY, it wasn’t well thought out resulting in poor execution/practice in the real world. Anyone involved in higher education (even as a student) knows that an academic school year ends in June – it’s tied to the academic year for financial aid, which runs from July 1 to the following June 30. They also know that most certificate and diploma programs don’t consist of enough credits to maintain continuous full-time attendance, and that the farther a degree student progresses the fewer required courses they have to take, which is why most degree programs have open electives built into them.

      Why the powers that be didn’t involve higher education professionals when coming up with the VRAP guidelines beats me. It just makes me think that the whole idea of VRAP was a publicity stunt to make politicians look like they were doing something, anything, to “support” older, unemployed veterans. But, if that was the case, VRAP would have been planned and executed better from the beginning and a measly 90-day extension wouldn’t need to be “sold” to congress. The barriers veterans are running into while trying to use their VRAP “benefit” are not coincidental or accidental.

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