By DAVID JOSEPH DEL GRANDE
Pima Community College recently hosted two forums to provide information regarding veteran education benefits and waiver assistance for students who received debt letters from the Veterans Administration.
Pima’s forums were held on June 21 and June 23 in an effort to assist approximately 3,700 students whom had received veteran benefits since Fall 2010.
Zach Newton, a former PCC student, received a debt letter in April and attended Monday’s forum to obtain information about the waiver process. Newton transferred to the University of Arizona in 2013, and is still receiving VA benefits that he said were recently cut by almost $1000.
“I got a debt letter in the mail saying I owe money for classes I took in 2010,” Newton said. “I don’t know if it’s too late to start the appeal process or not, but I am still receiving VA benefits.”
Newton said he was surviving by pooling funds from financial aid, veteran benefits and part-time employment. Newton receives veteran benefits from his father’s GI-Bill.
“I’ve got student loans and I do work part-time but frankly I’m broke,” he said. “The price of education is really high, worrisome and it accumulates. I’m in debt, it’s stressful and scary.
“I need the money but I have to make it work whether I get it or not,” Newton said. “I’ll just sink myself deeper in debt. I don’t know what else to do? I have to continue to go to school.”
Since March, Pima’s Chancellor Lee Lambert has worked towards solving veteran student issues with the political offices of Congressman Ron Barber, and Arizona Senator John McCain.
Maricela Solis de Kester, Barber’s Tucson district director, attended the forums in order to provide constituent support for Pima and veteran students. Solis de Kester said part of the discussions with Lambert prior to the two events involved answering some key questions.
“’How are we going to help veterans understand what the debt letters mean, where the liability lies and what the process will be to reconcile that liability,’” Solis de Kester said. “The chancellor decided to hold these forums to get the word out, and they invited our offices to participate.”
On June 16, McCain wrote a letter to Lambert expressing his concerns regarding the hurdles Pima and its veteran students continue to face. McCain did praise PCC for hosting the forums, and Lambert’s commitment to meeting with his office but called for swift resolutions to these critical issues.
“As the relatively new chancellor of PCC, I understand that you have unfortunately inherited this student veteran issue,” McCain wrote to Lambert. “I appreciate your willingness to meet with my office, on three separate occasions, since the veteran audit was announced in March 2014. But, immediate action to remedy this widespread problem is essential.”
On March 18, the Arizona Veterans Education & Training Approving Agency prohibited PCC from enrolling new veteran students for 60 days due to poor record-keeping and payments to ineligible students.
By May 20, the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services found PCC in full compliance with regulations, which allowed the college to enroll veterans for the summer and fall semesters.