Shinseki acknowledged during an interview with American Forces Press Service that the Post-9/11 GI Bill got off to a rocky start after it took effect Aug. 1.
He said he was surprised when many colleges and universities took months to submit the student enrollment certificates VA needed to begin cutting checks to the schools as well as enrollees.
"They must be well-endowed," he said of schools that covered the up-front costs of students' tuition, room and board without seeking prompt reimbursement. "But because I don't have that certificate, I haven't paid them tuition. But neither have I paid kids their monthly living stipend or their books, because they are all tied together."
By the second week of December, the end of the fall semester, VA was still receiving 1,500 to 2,000 certificates of enrollment a day for students who had been attending schools since August, he said. In fact, some are still trickling in to VA.
"We learned a lot. We learned we had to talk to 6,500 schools and say, 'We have got to do better,'" Shinseki said. "We needed to work with them and explain to them that 'Whether you think it is important or not, the veteran doesn't get paid until you send us this certificate of enrollment.' So for the veteran's sake, we need to do better."
Shinseki credited the VA staff with stepping up to the plate, contacting schools directly to solicit those enrollment certificates, then going into overdrive to manually process thousands of certificates a day. He convened a late-night meeting in November, bringing together the education directors from VA's regional offices to come up with ways to further speed up the processing.
"We took out steps that were redundant," he said. "In the process, we have simplified and reengineered the business process. ... We have worked the bugs out of an imperfect system."
By the end of the fall semester, he said, all 173,000 enrollees were being paid through this new process.
As of Feb. 1, 131,000 of the 153,000 students enrolled in the system were being paid, and VA was "knocking down" the remaining certificates at the rate of about 7,000 a day, he noted.
"So I feel pretty good about how this is going," Shinseki said. "Our numbers are up and our payments are up, and we still don't have an automated tool."
The first of those new tools is set to come online this month, with more capabilities to follow in July, November and December. By the year's end, Shinseki said, the system will be fully automated.
"I think we are on a good track," he said. "Now, when automation comes, we are going to have a tremendous gain."
Shinseki said he's counting on lessons learned implementing the Post-9/11 GI Bill to carry over as VA tackles its major challenge this year: reducing the disability claims backlog.
Shinseki called the Post 9/11 GI Bill a generous investment in the future of veterans who have served the country in uniform since 9/11.
"I feel good about the GI Bill. That is an accomplishment," he said. "I think that, long-term, this is going to be a huge return for the country. And it is a huge step for [veterans] and their lives."
The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides veterans seeking an undergraduate degree a full ride at any state institution at the highest in-state tuition rate, by state, along with a semester stipend for books and a monthly living stipend.
For the first time in history, service members enrolled in the Post-9/11 GI Bill program can transfer unused educational benefits to their spouses or children.
The living stipend does not extend to active-duty service members receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.