Two previous WCET Frontiers posts (post 1, post 2) addressed the issue of housing allowances for students who are Veterans and taking online courses. Today and appropriately during Veteran’s Day week, we’re happy to welcome Mark Haskins of Pierce College to provide an exciting update on this issue. As he says, cheers to the VA for addressing this!
Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
By eliminating the housing allowance “penalty”, the Veterans Administration (VA) has made hybrid classes a great choice for veteran students by allowing full housing benefits with less time tied to the classroom.
For those of us in the veteran education business, this news traveled at the speed of email when the VA quietly rolled out the change to benefits-certifying officials at colleges and universities back in August of this year. Now in the month we observe Veterans Day and American Education Week, it seemed appropriate for WCET to disseminate this big news more broadly.
The Trouble with Housing Allowances
As noted in previous WCET blogs, veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces since September 11, 2001 are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which not only pays for tuition, fees, books, and supplies (up to certain limits), but also includes a Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA). Analogous to a service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), MHA varies based on the zip code of the school the veteran student attends. However, for students taking only online classes, their MHA is reduced to half the national average, regardless of where they live or where the school is located (see (c)(1)(B)(3)). With the national average housing allowance currently at $1,681, fully online students are only receiving $840.50. WCET has pointed out in multiple blogs how this short-changes these students, but it is a complex problem with no easy solution. For example, it’s not hard to see the fairness issues that arise when the cost of living where the student resides is significantly different than the vicinity of the institution one is attending online.
But Wait: What about Hybrid Courses?
On the other hand, for those of us in this business, it did not make sense that, for the purposes of MHA calculations, hybrid classes were being treated the same as online classes. In hybrid classes, students generally do spend a significant portion of class time learning online, often through video lectures, readings, and assignments. However, what makes them a “hybrid,” is that students also spend part of their time physically present in the classroom.
Definitions vary, but hybrid courses typically entail a proportion of online learning that is 50% or greater. For Pierce College at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), generally half of the class time is conducted online, which means that if a typical face-to-face class requires students to meet two days per week, for 2.5 hours each time, a hybrid course would require students to meet in person one day per week for 2.5 hours. We’ve found this to represent the best of both worlds for a large number of our military-affiliated students. They appreciate the opportunity afforded by hybrid classes to meet face-to-face with their professors and fellow students but also that the online component makes balancing their lives a little bit easier. While the MHA is a tremendous benefit that increases the opportunity for many veterans to attend school full time, the reality is that these are still non-traditional adult students with full-time lives that don’t necessarily accommodate sitting in a classroom for 5 or more hours per week.
Yet because of the way the VA defined “in-residence” courses, hybrid classes did not qualify a veteran student for full MHA. According to VA rules, to meet in-residence requirements, the total hours of seat time had to be greater than or equal to the number of course credits times the number of weeks in the course. To use our JBLM campus as an example, a 5-credit course delivered in 9 weeks required 45 hours in the classroom to meet VA in-residence requirements. Anything less was considered online, for the purposes of MHA calculations!
The loophole in this design was that as long as a student took one qualifying face-to-face course in the term, he or she could receive the full MHA rate for the college at which the course is taken. Naturally, this drove many veteran students who may have been best served by online or hybrid classes to take at least one in-residence course, rather than suffer the significant financial penalty for being considered fully online. Worse, the complexity of the rules and registration processes inevitably led to some students inadvertently signing up for non-qualifying classes. At Pierce, this both presented a significant source of stress for students and put a strain on the small team of VA benefits certifying officials, whose duties include personally reaching out to students who have unknowingly put their benefits in jeopardy.
Moving Forward – Exciting News on the MHA Front
Fortunately, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the VA changed the rules regarding hybrid courses earlier this year: Per their August 13 notification: “School Certifying Officials (SCOs) will certify all courses which combine classroom instruction and distance learning (commonly known as hybrid courses) as in-residence.” Additionally, the implementation guidelines did not prescribe any other in-class requirement for hybrid classes, other than at least one class meeting at some point within the start and end dates of the class. Not only does this allow veteran students to use hybrid courses to qualify for the full MHA, it also effectively eliminates the esoteric seat-time calculations for in-residence classes, simplifying the rules for both students and schools.
Separate from the hybrid issue, the VA received a lot of bad press when the challenges it faced implementing major changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2017 resulted in incorrect or missed MHA payments to many veteran students.
It’s time now to applaud them for this major shift that increases options for our student veterans, including access to the innovations in education that serve these adult learners so well. Cheers to the VA!
Pierce College at Joint Base Lewis-McChord