Sunday, August 19, 2012

VRAP vent

I started to write a letter to congressman, senators, Veteran's Administration peeps, etc to complain about limitations placed upon an otherwise worthy attempt to retrain and help unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 60.

I really don't know how effective such a letter writing campaign would be, but I know I can reach some people via a blog post, so here goes...

My name is Brian M. Merrill.  Aside from my time enlisted in the U.S. Army as an Infantryman, I have lived in Elizabeth, West Virginia for the past 40 years.

In May, the Veteran’s Administration announced a new program called VRAP (Veteran’s Retraining Assistance Program), targeting unemployed veterans who fell through the GI Bill cracks.  The program is essentially a monthly stipend that approved veterans can use to get either a Professional Certificate or an Associate’s Degree in a “high demand” occupation.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Photography on this list of approved occupations.  I found that the Art Institute of Pittsburgh had an online course of study that awarded a Professional Certificate upon successful completion of the course.  Armed with this information I applied via the VA’s online “ebenefits” web site.

I applied for the program in June, designating the Art Institute as my school of choice and Photography as my course of study.  Recently I received notice that I was approved for the program.  I have been out of work since June of 2011, so you can imagine how happy I was to receive the approval notice.  I have wanted to be a photographer “when I grew up” since I was 6 years old, so this seemed like a miracle, a real dream come true kind of opportunity for me.

When I contacted the Art Institute’s Veteran’s coordinator, she said that she had been informed by the VA that because they also granted 4 year degrees, they were not qualified for the program.

I assumed (bad thing to do when dealing with bureaucracy) that the letter acknowledging my eligibility encompassed the school and program I had indicated on the application.  WRONG.  That would make too much sense in the real world.  The Certificate of Eligibility is just the beginning.  The veteran is then tasked with finding a suitable "community college" (do those things really exist anymore?) or technical school that does NOT (god forbid) offer any 4 year degree.

The problem is, over the past 10-15 years, both of these have become either extinct along with the dinosaur, or had found ways to partner with larger universities to offer some 4 year degrees, which supposedly disqualifies them from the VRAP program.  Since the late 80's or 90's, community colleges found the only way they could compete was by partnering with 4 year degree granting universities.

After doing a little research, I found that indeed there were no “eligible” community colleges anywhere in the State of West Virginia.  While only 10 miles from me there stands a former community college that has long since affiliated with West Virginia University to allow local students to earn 4 year degrees in a handful of subjects.

I also found that nearly 20 states have this same situation.  All of their community colleges had agreements with larger schools so they could offer 4 year degrees as a matter of convenience for their local students.
So it seems like we have a program that is supposed to help unemployed veterans but in effect forces those who reside in 19-20 states to attend schools out of state, thereby incurring travel costs, higher tuition, and general inconvenience.

For my own example, I found Columbus State Community College (CSCC) over 100 miles away from me that does not offer 4 year degrees and is qualified for VRAP participating students.  There is no conceivable way I can commute or relocate to this school.  From the pictures on their web site it looks like an extension of high school.

To further confuse matters, thousands of otherwise qualified veterans have flooded the VA with complaints over the exclusion of 4 year institutions that also grant Professional Certificates.  So it appears the VA has reconsidered and is now allowing “some” 4 year schools to provide schooling to VRAP qualified students.

Again, in my case, the Art Institute did not originally appear on the list of schools found by searching via this, VA recommended, web site ( ).  On a VA online forum, one advisor provides a walkthrough of which criteria to select to see a list of qualified schools.  Two months later, using their recommended criteria for searching, I found that the Art Institute DOES show up on the list.

I discovered this last piece of information over the weekend, so I haven't had time to contact the Veteran's coordinator at the Art Institute to verify whether their school is now a qualified outlet for the program or not. So I'll wait until tomorrow and find see what they have to say.

That's the end of the letter for now...

It's not often that I believe in some government originated "program" that's supposed to "help us".  Now that I see how they build in specific exclusions to educational outlets that are better qualified to provide suitable training than the ones they prefer, I understand now how I never expected much from the VA or any other part of the federal government.  They always seem to find a way to fuck it up.