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House panel examines changes to veterans retraining program

Jul. 22, 2013 - 01:10PM   |  
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A House subcommittee is considering legislation to fix one of the many problems with a year-old veterans training program many say is underused.

More than 105,000 veterans have applied to use the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, which provides a year of monthly GI Bill benefits for a veteran to attend a full-time training program to learn a new and marketable skill. But only 52,228 are enrolled in school.

The program is limited to veterans ages 35 to 60 who are unemployed when they apply, are not eligible for other veterans education benefits and are not receiving veterans disability benefits based on a determination of unemployability. Those attending training receive $1,564 a month in Montgomery GI Bill benefits.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s economic opportunity panel is seeking to change the program so veterans can attend school on a part-time schedule. Currently, for example, a veteran interested in becoming a welder using VRAP is often required to take a full course load, including math, science or history courses, which don’t directly help in finding a welding job.

“This proposal would greatly enhance training opportunities for veterans,” said Curtis Coy, the Veterans Affairs Department’s deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity.

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, chief sponsor of the bill, HR 1357, said the current program requires spending 18 to 22 hours a week in class to be considered a full-time student.

He said veterans in his area “discovered that the majority of available technical training programs fall short.” His bill would reduce minimum class time to 16 hours a week, correcting what he called an “unintended obstacle” for veterans.

Major veterans groups support the change. Ryan Gallucci of Veterans of Foreign Wars agreed that the program is “drastically underutilized.”

One of the biggest headaches veterans face is finding an accredited school with a one-year program. Only two-year public colleges are eligible, eliminating private and for-profit schools, as well as one-year programs offered at four-year public schools, Gallucci said. Johnson’s bill does not address that problem.

Even 16 hours could be too long for some veterans, Gallucci said, suggesting the program could be modified to provide partial benefits for those attending less than full time.

The Reserve Officers Association supports the bill but believes the program “should be based on competency rather than seat time,” according to a statement provided to the committee.

The Education Department changed its financial aid system in March to award aid “based on the amount of learning a student has achieved rather than the amount of time he or she spends in a classroom,” the statement says.

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