Q&A with Curtis L. Coy
Curtis (Curt) L. Coy was appointed to be the first Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity in the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on May 9, 2011. In this role, Mr. Coy oversees all education benefits (GI Bill), vocational rehabilitation and employment for wounded warriors and disabled Veterans, loan guaranty service (VA Home Loans), Veterans transition and employment programs, and VBA collaboration with Department of Defense programs. These programs work collectively to assist Veterans in achieving personal and economic success.
Prior to this appointment, Mr. Coy was a senior executive at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for nearly 11 years. For eight of those years, he was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
For almost seven years, Mr. Coy worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers as a senior Managing Consultant. Prior to his civilian career, Mr. Coy served in the Navy for 24 years as a Surface Warfare and Supply Corps officer. He began his military career as an enlisted member in the United States Air Force. He subsequently accepted an appointment at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating with the Class of 1975.
He is the recipient of a number of distinguished awards, to include most recently the Western Area Veteran Education Specialists (WAVES) Bill Pearson Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Association of State Approving Agencies Lifetime Leadership Award*, the Presidential Rank Award, the Surgeon General of the United States’ Medallion and the HHS Secretary's Distinguished Service Award. His military decorations include Meritorious Service Medals, Commendation Medal and Achievement Medals. Mr. Coy has been selected as a Fellow in the National Academy of Public Administration and the National Contract Management Association.
Mr. Coy earned two Master’s Degrees from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Q: Tell me about your current position and how long you have been at VA: can you tell me how Veterans’ education and employment have changed since you have been with VA?
A: I have been the Deputy Under Secretary of Economic Opportunity for over six years now. Our team is tasked with two missions in the Veteran landscape. The first involves the management and delivery of the economic programs – Education, Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, and Home Loan Guaranty. The second is to identify, develop, and implement initiatives to fuel economic well-being for Veterans and their families. During this time we have overseen the modernization of all three programs, the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the passage and initial implementation of the Forever GI Bill, as well as significant changes in the way we deliver Vocational Rehabilitation services – like the establishment of a tele-counseling program designed to reach Veterans who are rural or unable to travel. In our Loan Guaranty program we have improved the way we deliver services like the Specially Adapted Housing program or the fact that the VA Home Loan program has seen record levels of loans at a time when home ownership in the United States is at a 50 year low.
Q: We have seen an increase in Veterans using VA benefits. Why do you think that is and what has been the impact?
A: VA has taken strides toward modernization – utilizing the internet, technology, and system automation to make information more readily available, opening new lines of communication between Veterans and VA, and processing claims more efficiently. Online resources are available to help Veterans identify benefit entitlement and make informed decisions. For example, the GI Bill Comparison Tool allows Veterans to research and compare academic institutions, so they can match their interests, career objectives, and educational requirements with the institution of higher learning that best meets their needs. VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service is currently conducting a pilot using tele-counseling in order to grant entitlement remotely, which reaches Veterans who are in rural areas or unable to travel. With VA Home Loans, Veterans are able to utilize the Automated Certificate of Eligibility (at ebenefits.va.gov) with 65% of applications being determined by system automation – requiring no human intervention – which resulted in a tremendous decrease in processing days, going from a high of 26 days on average to currently less than four days.
We have also increased our social media presence, which keeps Veterans in touch with VA and allows us to send and receive questions and answers in real time. Additionally, Veterans and Servicemembers can connect with each other on social media, sharing information they have found useful and seeking out others in a similar situation. On our various social media platforms, VA shares content that directly affects Veterans, which could be law changes, explanations of benefits, or what to expect. Social media has created a community where Veterans can talk to VA and each other.
Bottom line, VA is doing everything we can to make the Veteran an informed consumer by providing convenient sources of information and resources about VA benefits.
Q: Let’s say a Servicemember back from overseas has just been discharged, taken some time for R&R and is now ready to settle down and use benefits. What does VA do to help them be successful?
A: As I just mentioned, we have worked hard to ensure our Veterans are informed consumers. We’ve worked hard at improving our transition program but sometimes after R&R, that seems like years ago. All separating servicemembers are required to attend the Transition Assistance Program – or TAP. TAP ensures future Veterans receive benefit information and educational materials for them to reference whenever they are ready to use benefits. VA also provides benefit information online at benefits.va.gov, which has a myriad of resources to help guide Veterans through the benefit types and application process. We have 56 Regional Offices across the country, and a National Call Center staffed to answer questions or provide information about benefits – that number is 1-800-827-1000. When a Veteran is ready to apply for benefits, the fastest way to apply is online at ebenefits.va.gov.
Q: What’s going on with the significant increase in VA-guaranteed home loans? Tell us a bit about this program and why is this program good for Veterans?
A: The VA-guaranteed home loan program helps Veterans obtain, retain, adapt or refinance a home. Last year we celebrated our 22 millionth home loan since 1944. It allows a Veteran or servicemember to do that with little or no down payment. That money stays in their pocket – which often times mean the beginning of a family’s economic future. As well, VA loans often allow more favorable financing terms, including no down payment I just mentioned or mortgage insurance premiums.
The past decade brought massive changes to the housing market which experienced catastrophic losses in 2008. Before 2008, there were a number of loan programs that enticed Veterans away from the VA loan. Although on the surface it looked as if these programs were more advantageous, they did not carry the same protections that the VA home loan does. VA has taken major strides in offering the lending community and the Veterans they serve a more streamlined experience, without sacrificing the quality and protections they deserve. The VA Home Loan program has increased its volume by over 300% since 2008, but has not increased the number of staff. VA has navigated this increase by enhancing and modernizing the touchpoints that internal and external stakeholders utilize during the process of offering a home loan to Veterans.
We don’t just guarantee loans, we are there for the life of the loan – we help our Veterans keep their house if they run into problems by working with banks and mortgage companies. Since 2009, VA has assisted over 683,000 borrowers in default avoid foreclosure. VA has a responsibility to the taxpayer, and by helping these Veterans, it has resulted in a taxpayer savings of over 22 billion dollars in potential claim payments.
Q: It wasn’t long ago there were lots of stories about Veteran unemployment, what has changed recently and what has contributed to that?
A: At the start of 2011, the Veteran unemployment rate was at 9.9%, the highest since being recorded. To address this problem, the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) Act of 2011 was passed. This act called for the redesign of TAP and made the attendance mandatory for transitioning Servicemembers. The efforts of partnering agencies such as Departments of Defense, Labor, and Education helped to shape and deliver a program better suited for the modern employment landscape. Additionally, Veterans Service Organizations contributed to the efforts of helping transitioning Servicemembers find employment once they separated – they have been a force multiplier. The effort to reduce Veteran unemployment has been a team effort on many fronts. These incredible efforts have led to October’s Veteran unemployment rate to a record low of 2.7% compared to the national unemployment rate of 4.1%.
Businesses are seeing that Veterans are great employees. They come from the most trained military in history, they are smart, mature, hard working, loyal and mission oriented. In fact, in a recent Chamber of Commerce sponsored study – over 400 HR professionals were interviewed. They indicated of their top 7 recruiting priorities for American businesses: number one was Individuals with higher learning, number two was Women, and number 3 was Military Veterans.
Quite a turnaround in six short years.
Q: We have heard that Veterans are doing well in school. In what ways and what do you attribute that to?
A: A recent partnership with Student Veterans of America helped create a report that highlights the successes of our student Veterans. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise….today’s Veterans are from the most highly trained military in our Nation’s history, they are older and more mature – many with families, some with jobs, and are mission/goal oriented.
Would it surprise you to know that Veterans have a 72% success rate – meaning 54% complete their course of study, 18% are persisting with only 28% attiring – higher than their civilian counterparts?
Would it surprise you to know that Veteran students have an average GPA of 3.34 compared to non-Veteran students at 2.94?
We’ve seen over 453,000 obtain a degree or certificate – that’s the size of Raleigh, North Carolina…. About 52,000 of those are STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, and math).
VA is creating new avenues to meet the needs of Veterans and their families regardless of where they are. The Veterans Success on Campus or VSOC is a VA program that places experienced vocational rehabilitation counselors into universities. These highly trained counselors interact with Veterans attending classes at over 90 universities and colleges. VSOC allows for VA to serve individuals in the school setting and supports the journey towards achieving higher education goals.
Q: With the 75th Anniversary of the GI Bill coming up in a few years, can you tell me a brief history of Veterans’ education?
A: Seventy-three years ago, American Legion Commander Harry W. Colmery drafted what became the Service Members Readjustment Act of 1944, an early version of the GI Bill of Rights. The original GI Bill has long been considered an enormous success for its impact on the post-war economy and capital investment in our “Greatest Generation.” Approximately 50% of WWII Veterans took advantage of the education benefits provided by the GI Bill.
The GI Bill made college a reality for many who wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise. As a result, the GI Bill is sometimes credited with helping establish the middle class. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in the GIs’ educational pursuits, the government and economy received about $7 in return.
These education and training benefits are a key resource for Veterans transitioning from military service to the civilian workforce. The original GI Bill provided us with 14 Nobel laureates, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, and three presidents of the United States.
Since the inception of the Post 9/11 GI Bill in 2009, VA has provided $79 billion in benefits to over 1.8 million beneficiaries. More folks than ever are using their education benefits and are earning degrees and certificates at an incredible pace. As impressive as the number of GI Bill users is, the success obtained by those using GI Bill benefits is even more impressive.
Q: Tell me more about the “Forever GI Bill” and its significance for Veterans. It can be difficult for Veteran students trying to muddle through the minutiae of the legislation and simply boil it down to “what’s in it for me.” Can you describe what benefits Veterans will enjoy as a result of this legislation?
A: The recent Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act -- often called the “Forever GI Bill” with 34 new laws pertaining to the GI Bill – was also passed unanimously a couple of months ago. The legislation signed by the President is the most extensive mandate since the initial passing of the GI Bill.
With the passing of the Forever GI Bill, several changes are in store for Veterans and their families. A couple of highlights include:
Instead of having 15 years to use your GI Bill, you now have access to those benefits over a lifetime – hence “The Forever GI Bill.”
All Post-9/11 Purple Heart recipients will have access to full GI Bill educational benefits which is a notable and honorable change.
A 5 year $75 million High Technology pilot that provides Veterans the opportunity to enroll in high technology courses….this is a pilot using contracts, not our current procedures. An innovative pilot authorizes us to provide additional benefits to help student Veterans to complete a STEM degree which often take longer than a traditional degree.
Under another provision, we can now restore GI Bill benefits to those Veterans who were harmed by abrupt school closures.
It increased funding for our State Approving Agencies – these are state agencies that actually approve or withdraw schools for the GI Bill.
As you can tell, we have our work cut out for us when it comes to putting the Forever GI Bill together. The education that Veterans will obtain from the Forever GI Bill will help to create promising careers and fuel the dream of economic future.
We’ll be using social media, our website, and media outlets to get the word out as different sections become effective.
Q: When you think of the future of Veterans’ education and employment, what makes you concerned or worried? What gives you a sense of hope?
A: One concern I have is ensuring the Veterans of the future receive the education, training, and resources to make the most of their benefits. Future beneficiaries may access benefits long after TAP and will require appropriate and accessible educational tools. We want to ensure that every Veteran who uses benefits is empowered through educational tools and training. I am given hope that those leaving the military after January 1, 2013 will no longer have to worry about when they use their educational benefits. The ability for our Veterans to use benefits at any point in their life provides them with the ability to pursue economic opportunities and mobility regardless of age. The only thing that concerns us is Veterans not using their well-earned VA benefits.
Q: Any last words?
A: That’s a big question; I would suggest Secretary Shulkin said it best. He recently stated at the National Press Club that the most successful VA benefit programs “are those that are enabling Veterans to have meaningful lives and to have independence and security.” Secretary Shulkin then specifically referred to the GI Bill, Home Loan program, and Vocational Rehabilitation program. We work diligently to provide benefits which enable Veterans and their families to have a more meaningful, independent, secure life; it is an honor and privilege to do so.