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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Greenville County’s victim assistance programs

Nellie S.

Nellie S.
Photo Credit: Nellie. S.

On February 12, 2012, while walking home to her new husband of eight days, Nellie S. took a familiar shortcut that changed her life. With dusk approaching, she crossed through a vacant lot hoping to save time and reach home before nightfall. She did not make it home that night.

Nellie was attacked from behind, brutally beaten, sexually assaulted, and left naked and unconscious on the ground. She does not know how long she was knocked out, but she does know that she regained consciousness to find a different man trying to sexually assault her, only to run off, thwarted, when a passerby crossing the lot came upon the scene.  The passerby tried to cover Nellie, called 911, and stayed with her until the paramedics and police arrived.

But, this story is not so much about what happened to Nellie that fateful day; it is about what happened afterward. It is about the comprehensive support services that were quickly provided to her, and which she is still using – at no cost to herself – more than a year later.

In addition to being assigned a rape advocate through the Victim-Witness Program of the Greenville County Solicitor’s Office, Nellie was also provided services through the Victim Services Unit of the Greenville Police Department. A grateful recipient of these services, she was happy to describe how they had helped her.

How did you learn about the victim assistance programs?

“Through the Greenville Memorial Hospital System, and I have a rape advocate through the Greenville County Courthouse.”

How did the victim assistance programs help you? What services did they provide to you?

“Mental health, rape counseling, disability. Right now, I’m in the process of getting restitution. A lot of different things, a lot of different ways.”

How long did they help you?

“They’re still in the process of helping me. It’s been a year since the incident and they’re still helping. [They help] For as long as it takes for us to get back on our feet.”

The Victim-Witness Program

gccourthouse

Greenville County Courthouse
Photo Credit: Google Street View

Greenville County’s Office of the Solicitor, located in the Greenville County Courthouse, runs the Victim-Witness Program. The program was established in the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit of South Carolina in 1978, and is set up in accordance with guidelines written by the Victim Assistance Policy Committee, which implemented the Victim’s Bill of Rights passed by the South Carolina Legislature in 1978.

The Victim-Witness Advocate aids crime victims by offering many services that are confidential and free of charge.

Advocates inform victims of their rights. They act as liaison between the victim and other agencies. They attend court hearings with victims or attend on their behalf. They inform victims of hearing dates, case updates, and dispositions. They arrange pretrial conferences upon a Solicitor’s request and attend them. They attend hearings when requested by the victim or their family.

The Victim Services Unit

Greenville County Law Enforcement Center

Greenville County Law Enforcement Center
Photo Credit: Google Street View

Twenty-four hour crisis intervention and support services are provided to crime victims and witnesses through the Victim Services Unit of the Greenville Police Department

Victim services may include:

Providing educational materials to law enforcement staff and the community in response to criminal victimization

Referring victims to appropriate service agencies/providers

Ensuring victims’ legal rights are protected

Advising victims of case status and progress and maintaining contact with and providing support to victims and/or family members throughout the criminal justice process as needed

Providing applications and information to victims concerning South Carolina Crime Victims Compensation

Upon request, intervening on behalf of victims with creditors, employers, etc.

Establishing contact with victims of crime and identifying their needs

Providing crisis intervention and support to victims of crime

Providing educational materials concerning victims’ rights and adult and child victimization

Increasing the community’s awareness of the victim assistance program to encourage timely reporting and assistance

Intervening in crisis situations using tact, discretion, compassion and good judgment

Justice served

Crime never pays, especially for stupid criminals. Nellie happened to know both men who assaulted her from around the neighborhood. She was able to give police their names and descriptions, as well as positively identify them from photo lineups. After they were caught, DNA evidence was also positively matched.

Both men are currently jailed at the Greenville County Detention Center, bond denied, awaiting trial.