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CBS Austin: ACC offering guidance after email left veteran worried about his GI Bill benefits

May 1, 2020

An Austin-area veteran says Austin Community College sent him an email Thursday, telling him his GI Bill benefits were going to be slashed -- all because the school was listing summer school courses in a way that meant veterans wouldn't get the full housing benefit they earned. This comes as the school continues to offer online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wesley Williamson was shocked when he got this email:

"Hello,

As you are likely aware, the Monthly Housing Allowance rate (sometimes referred to as BAH) is different when students are taking all online coursework as opposed to at least one section of in-person coursework.

In recent legislation passed by Congress, the VA has given colleges guidance on which courses may be certified in-person and which courses need to be certified as online for the upcoming Summer term. The VA is only allowing courses that are identifiable as former in-person courses to be certified as in-person. Unfortunately, all of ACC's courses for the summer semester are listed as online courses (not as former in-person courses) and will need to be certified as online courses with the VA.

For VA purposes all courses in the Summer term will be certified as online except those in the second 5-week session listed specifically as on-campus section.

Should you need additional funding assistance, ACC encourages everyone to file a FAFSA form for both the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 academic years at fafsa.gov.

All students able to register are eligible to begin registration at 12:01 am on Monday, May 4, 2020. If you need assistance with the registration process or need assistance choosing which courses to register for, please contact your assigned advisor or an academic advisor through online advising using the Got Questions link at the bottom: https://www.austincc.edu/students/advising/areas-of-study-advising/online-advising

For questions related to ACC VA, please email us at veterans@austincc.edu or contact me."

"I was planning on taking some summer classes, and you know I was already concerned about the financial impact of the classes being offered only online due to the coronavirus," he said. "It would reduce the monthly housing allowance to like 800 and something dollars instead of like 1700."

It came as a shock. Williamson earned his benefits in a tour of duty in Iraq that left him injured by a roadside bomb. "I feel betrayed by the system. Everything I went to Iraq for, got blown up for and suffered for, for all these years, a big part of it was my education," he said.

I reached out to U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett. He represents the sliver of I-35 that connects Austin and San Antonio, as well as both cities. Back in March, Congress passed S 3503 -- authorizing the Department of Veterans Affairs to continue educational assistance for veterans on the GI Bill, as colleges went online. It includes housing stipends and runs through December.

"I'm really pleased that KEYE is spotlighting this, because I've had some similar issues in San Antonio," said Rep. Doggett. "And there's no reason that any veteran should lose any of their benefit just because they can't go physically to a class, only online."

Both CBS Austin and Rep. Doggett reached out to ACC. The school responded with a statement that is very different from the original email that Williamson got.

"Austin Community College is committed to supporting all students through the COVID-19 disruptions both financially and academically. Our priority is making sure students can stay on track to reach their goals.

All colleges and universities are awaiting more details from the Veterans Administration (VA) about eligibility requirements and guidelines regarding financial support for veteran students. ACC believes no student should be subjected to any loss of benefits as a result of being forced to transition to online courses due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

The college will cover the tuition and fees for its veteran students if necessary, and we will continue to work with the VA to advocate for our veteran students' full benefits.

—— Dr. Shasta Buchanan, Vice President of Student Affairs"

Congressman Doggett added -- the benefits cover more than this summer. "It also applies to the fall semester since it's so uncertain when we'll have longhorn football or open classrooms around here, we want to be prepared," he said.