Jacksonville vets lose GI Bill tuition before graduating from career college

Jacksonville veterans, cut off from GI Bill tuition before graduating

Local veterans attending a career college in Jacksonville, have been cut off from their federally funded tuition.

According to a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman, the Florida State Approving Agency (SAA) withdrew GI Bill approval for all of Florida Career College’s campuses in Florida on Feb. 3 and notified the school and VA of its decision.

Navy veteran Steven Oxfurth got the bad news 12 days later on Feb. 15. “They told us that they were no longer going to be receiving funding," he said.

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Oxfurth and several other veterans learned their benefits, which included tuition and a monthly stipend, would end three months shy of graduating from a nine-month HVAC program.

Florida Career Colleges' 10 campuses in the state are now unable to accept GI Bill post 911 funding, but we learned it wasn't a surprise to administrators.

According to a VA spokesman, the schools were told in December 2016  the federal government would no longer recognize its accrediting agency.  When we asked the VA how that impacted GI Bill benefits, the agency responded that, "It had the authority to continue paying benefits for up to 18 months (until June 2018) while those schools seek new accreditation."

Less than a year later, in August 2017, Steven Oxfurth and fellow Navy vet Bryant Patterson enrolled at FCC’s Jacksonville campus using their GI Bill benefits. Both say they were never warned those benefits could stop at any time.

“Because of us being a chapter 33, the post-9/11 GI Bill, we also get a monthly stipend. A lot of us, myself included, that’s how we stay above the water while still going to this school,” Oxfurth said, adding, “We will not be receiving that either because they don’t have the paperwork saying we’re in class.”

The VA told Action News Jax, even though it had authority to pay benefits through June 2018, when the State Approving Agency withdrew its approval of FCC, the federal government was mandated to cut off funding at the end of the term.

Because FCC operates on a monthly “module” system, that means funding stopped at the end of February-- three months shy of graduation for Oxfurth and Patterson

“A whole lot of despair.  Some of them seemed like they were defeated, that their time out in the field, what they paid for putting their life on the line, wasn’t appreciated,” Patterson said.

We went to FCC’s Jacksonville campus to find out why veterans weren't warned when they enrolled that their GI Bill benefits could end at any time.

An administrator said he couldn’t comment and referred us to the college’s attorney.  We left a detailed message, as of the airing of this story, he has not returned our calls for comment.

In recent weeks, another local college offered to enroll Oxfurth and four of his classmates in its HVAC program.

Oxfurth said Tulsa Welding School is also giving them credit for some of the time they spent at FCC. He and fellow veterans are now in the process of working with the VA to get back the four months of benefits they used at FCC.

Bryant Patterson is continuing his education at FCC, but is paying the remaining tuition himself.
     
Statement from Department of Veterans Affairs on Florida Career College:

In December 2016, the Secretary of Education withdrew recognition of the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS), which is Florida Career College’s accreditor.  However, VA has the authority to continue paying benefits for up to 18 months (until June 2018) while those schools seek new accreditors.

In addition, in order to pay GI Bill benefits, programs must be approved by a State Approving Agency regardless of whether the programs are accredited or not.

The Florida State Approving Agency (SAA) withdrew GI Bill approval for all of Florida Career College’s campuses in Florida on February 3, 2018, and notified the school and VA of its decision. 

In order to allow credit to be granted to affected GI Bill students, VA normally continues paying benefits after such a withdrawal until the end of the current term. The campus in Houston, TX, remains approved for GI Bill benefits.