The government is having a hard time processing the huge number of GI Bill applications, and that means veterans aren't likely to receive their first checks until weeks after school has started.
Nearly 500,000 military veterans are expected to go to college this fall under a new GI Bill. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is more generous than its predecessor; it now covers veterans' living expenses as well as their tuition.
Patrick Mefford, 25, has spent one-fifth of his life in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
When Mefford started his college career last spring at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Cambridge, he got a monthly GI Bill check of about $1,300.
"Out of that money I had to pay tuition [and] books; that amount is pretty hard to live on," he said.
That was under the old GI Bill. Under the new bill, also called the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Mefford's tuition will be paid and he'll receive a stipend for living expenses.
"$1,200, I believe, a month," Mefford said. "And that's mine to keep and use as I see fit. That gives students a lot more freedom in what they can do and pursue."
More financial freedom for student veterans is the promise of the new GI Bill.
But the program is so popular that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington D.C. is bogged down with applications. A recent report from the VA shows at least 200,000 education benefit claims are waiting to be processed. There's no indication of just how many of those are GI Bill applications, but the same pipeline only had 50,000 pending items last year at this time.
That logjam means GI Bill checks to student veterans starting college, money they're counting on to pay rent, mortgages, car payments and other living expenses, might not be available for several weeks.
Phil O'Donnell, the Director of Veterans Services at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, says the student veterans he's working with aren't surprised at the hold up.
"If you talk to anyone who's ever been in the military, the phrase 'hurry up and wait' is a very common thing," O'Donnell said. "Folks in the military are used to long lines; they're used to standing in line waiting for something to happen."
O'Donnell said if student veterans face serious financial trouble because of the delay, there are loan programs available through county and state veterans offices. He said the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled Veterans of America, and the American Legion have also offered to help veterans fill in financial gaps.
Veterans like Mefford, who's attending Anoka-Ramsey, won't have to worry about tuition and books while the VA is sorting out the mess. The college is deferring those costs until GI Bill checks begin to roll in.
At the University of Minnesota, veterans coordinator Carin Anderson is telling student veterans not to worry about their tuition bill. The U of M is also deferring those costs for now. But Anderson is advising vets to carefully manage their personal finances while they wait for their first GI Bill check.
"I've been warning students, we're going to help you with your tuition, but make sure you're budgeting accordingly for your rent, food, things like that case that living stipend isn't there at the beginning of October," Anderson said.
VA officials in Washington say they've hired 750 workers to process GI Bill applications. Even so, they say it could be six to eight weeks before veterans receive their first benefit checks.
Meanwhile, one national group plans to monitor delays with help from veterans themselves. The Washington D.C.-based Student Veterans of America is asking vets to fill out an online survey so the group can track when benefits finally reach GIs.