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Student Veterans Hurting in Corcoran-GW Merger

Students who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say George Washington University makes it difficult to obtain their GI Bill benefits.
Photograph by Flickr user Adam Fagen.

Jonathan Fields did not anticipate that when the Corcoran College of Art and Design was absorbed into the George Washington University, one of the effects would be having to scramble to keep the lights on at his Arlington apartment.

Fields, 27, spent six years in the Army before enrolling in Corcoran in 2013 as an undergraduate photography student. When Corcoran merged with GW over the summer, Fields assumed there would be no impact on receiving his veteran’s housing stipend to cover his living expenses. But on September 1, he woke up with $23.42 in his bank account. Fields got a $600 bridge loan from GW’s military and veterans office to buy groceries and pay the bills at home, but he’s now worried he won’t be able to cover what he owes to GW.

For serving in the Iraq War, Fields receives benefits under the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistant Act (also known as the New GI Bill), including tuition assistance, a housing allowance of about $2,100 per month, and a book stipend. The GI Bill covers up to $20,235 of tuition and fees at a private college. Many schools—including Corcoran and GW—participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an additional benefit in which tuition expenses above the nominal cap are split between the institution and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fields received $18,077 in base GI Bill benefits for the 2013-14 academic year. Yellow Ribbon payments kicked in another $6,527 from the VA and $6,292 from Corcoran to cover the rest of his tuition. Corcoran also awarded Fields a scholarship of $3,000 per semester when he matriculated. But with his GI benefits covering 100 percent of his education and associated costs, the scholarship effectively turned into a cash refund. Fields used the money to pay his rent over the summer, when the GI Bill did not apply.

But GW does things differently. Although it officially honors Fields’s Corcoran award, GW applies scholarships and grants to tuition first, with the GI benefits paid afterward. The upshot: Fields won’t be getting that refund this year.

“Aside from screwing vets out of actual earned GI Bill benefits, they are also effectively screwing vets out of our awarded scholarships,” Fields tells Washingtonian.

The Corcoran-GW merger, announced in February, was made official August 18, just a week before the start of classes, when a DC Superior Court judge struck down a lawsuit seeking to stop the process. Fields says GW did not notify student veterans that they would need to resubmit the paperwork for their benefits now that they belonged to a new college, causing his military benefits to lapse briefly.

Fields has one other source of funds he can tap before he goes to the VA as a last resort. He left the Army with an 80-percent disability thanks to living conditions during a 12-month deployment in Iraq in 2009 and 2010. Fields says his unit’s barracks were only about 150 yards from an open-air burn pit, a round-the-clock fire where troops discarded everything from wooden pallets to auto parts to human and medical waste. As a result, he suffers from chronic headaches ranging from persistent, but tolerable, sinus pain to cluster headaches that require multiple medications and even Botox injections when they’re particularly bad. He keeps an 80-pound oxygen tank in his living room.

When Fields’s housing stipend didn’t come through at the beginning of the semester, he dipped into his disability checks to cover the rent, and now worries he’ll have to do the same next spring and summer.

Another student veteran, former Army Specialist Dominic Fredianelli, says he borrowed $1,500 to cover the rent on his Eastern Market apartment when it took two months for GW to reprocess his benefits.

Fields says GW’s military services office did an admirable job of sorting out his GI paperwork, but like his fellow Corcoran transplants, he says the university as a whole has not been a very welcoming place.

“This semester there has been a general malaise across all the students at Corcoran,” he says. “I actually supported the merger at first, because GW has the means and facilities to better the experience for students at Corcoran, but it went from being mild neglect to we’re flies and they’re trying to swat us away.”

Candace Smith, GW’s assistant vice president for media relations, says the university has been in touch with Corcoran students who have complained about billing errors, such as Lacey Irvin, a first-year design student who was told she owed the school $1,500.

But Corcoran students’ sense of isolation from the rest of GW remains strong, thanks to both administrative miscommunications and going to classes in a Beaux Arts landmark that was once a lively museum but is now a dreary backwater.

“I just haven’t felt like there’s any honest compassion,” says Fredianelli, who spent 2009 in Afghanistan as a combat engineer clearing roadside bombs. “Walking around in the Corcoran on school days, it’s just like a ghost town. It’s dark, and they’re just wheeling these big boxes out with the artwork in them.”

Tuition for the spring 2015 semester is due January 12, the first day of classes. GI Bill benefits won’t be processed until the deadline for adding or dropping courses on January 25, a schedule that makes Fields worry he’ll miss a payment. Smith says that’s not the case. Outstanding balances held by student veterans will remain without penalties until the deadline, after which those students’ course credits will be confirmed so the appropriate amount of military benefits can be awarded, she says.

But it’s unlikely Fields will be getting that refund again, even though he’s petitioning the GW bursar’s office to reinstate Corcoran’s billing procedures. Scholarships and academic grants are the first things GW applies to its bills, not the last. “These are the university’s policies,” Smith says.

Clarification: A previous verison of this story stated the GI Bill housing benefit is $1,500 per month. It is $2,100 for the 2014-15 academic year.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.