“I have given up everything to make this work and to pursue my education and career aspirations,” writes Senior Airman Christopher Shelby, U.S. Air Force Reserves and former active duty service member, in a plea to U.S. Congressman Paul Gosar. “Please help protect my rights and my educational benefits.”
Shelby’s dilemma also affects 39 other enrollees impacted by an admissions suspension ordered by the Veterans Administration (VA) to the Aviation Technology program at Yavapai College. These aspiring helicopter and airplane pilots, previously accepted into the college’s summer session slated to start May 11, were informed April 7.
The suspension involves an “85/15 rule” mandating that veterans comprise no more than 85 percent of VA-paid curricula.
“In the case of Yavapai College, previous program enrollment data submitted by the college did not correctly provide separate calculations for each concentration,” according to VA Spokesperson Terry Jemison. “Upon further review, it was found that the Airplane Operations and Helicopter Operations programs are not compliant with the 85/15 rule. Consequently, those programs were suspended from admitting new GI Bill students, and currently enrolled students will still be allowed to continue receiving GI Bill benefits to finish their program.”
Yavapai College, citing recommendation from legal counsel, declined to comment. However, a similarly suspended Utah university issued a statement.
“The aviation program at Southern Utah University (SUU), in partnership with Upper Limit Aviation, has been under scrutiny following an article by an investigative reporter at the LA Times on March 15, 2015,” the statement reads. “The reporter claimed that there was a ‘loop hole’ in the GI Bill that SUU and other flight schools were using to exploit the VA.”
SUU described submitting required enrollment reports for its winter and summer aviation programs, stating, “on March 23, 2015, the VA requested an alternate student count, using an entirely different methodology. Under the new method, the University is six veteran students over the allowable limit, in proportion to its private pay students.”
Prescott-based helicopter training company Guidance Aviation, partnering similarly with Yavapai College, also was included in the article. Shelby is among 90 veterans comprising the 100 percent veteran enrollees who sought entry to the summer Guidance Aviation helicopter curriculum.
“My educational benefits are solely in the hands of civilians,” Shelby stated. “I cannot pursue my education because 15 percent of my classmates are not civilians. It is not right that veterans wanting to pursue this program have to hope and rely on civilians to pursue this career as well…I was promised certain benefits when I joined and when I signed for the GI Bill, but because of the VA, the very organization sworn to protect our nation’s veterans…my educational aspirations and my life will be demolished.”
Leaving active duty and joining the Air Force Reserves in April 2014 to pursue aviation at Yavapai College, Shelby detailed “a long and arduous journey for me and my wife. We pushed through because we knew that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. Or so we thought. Two weeks after arriving in Prescott Valley, I received the email from Yavapai College that took that light away.”
The couple since has spent more than $15,000 in savings, Shelby’s letter states, while his wife has struggled to “start completely over in a [town] that is not a mecca for jobs. We are now in Prescott Valley with no jobs, no careers and no income. Our savings – what little is left – is not going to last us very long. Had this decision been made sooner, I would not have left active duty Air Force and my wife would not have had to leave her career.”
The hardships of Master Sergeant Patrick Needham, USAF (Retired), involve resigning a $75,000 a year contract position in Omaha; listing his Nebraska home below market for quick sale; sending his wife ahead to Arizona to find a job and a new home; and writing letters to 250 members of Congress as movers packed his then-sold house.
The 85/15 rule “doesn’t make sense to me,” Needham said. “Because where are you going to find aviation experience to the level that we have been trained into? That is in the military. The Army spends $1 million to train a helicopter pilot. There is no expense that (the Army does not) incur. They can spend the money to train to the best level possible. Wouldn’t you want that for your civilian pilots flying people around?”
One reason for the rule, according to the VA’s Jemison, is ensuring that veterans are not specifically “targeted” by schools. “If [at least] 15 percent of the student body comes from the general population willing to pay for that education and those programs at those prices,” he said, “it’s a measure of acceptance and quality.”
Timing of the suspensions stems from a January review by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Jemison says, and not the California newspaper. The committee’s evaluation had revealed “the extraordinarily costly six-figure expenditures for individuals” pursuing helicopter careers.
Consequently, “VA has begun to systematically examine compliance with the 85/15 rule for all aviation-related degree programs at public institutions of higher learning,” Jemison said. “We’ve undertaken this because in the past few years, VA has noted an expansion in the number of aviation-related degree programs offered by public schools, the increasingly high costs associated with those programs, growth in the number of GI Bill beneficiaries enrolled, as well as advertising focused on Veterans for those high-cost programs. Based on those observations, VA had reason to believe that such programs may not always be compliant with the 85/15 rule.”
The VA’s suspension surfaces as military branches are training fewer aviators, the aviation industry projects a shortage of more than 20,000 airline pilot seats in the next seven years, and the Air Force Times reports exiting pilots being offered $225,000 in bonuses for an added nine-year commitment. That, too, likely has the 40 aspiring aviators at Yavapai College pondering the ways and means of politics. QCBN