From combat gear to cap and gown

The end of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is driving a boom in higher education as returning veterans seek college degrees using their federal benefits.

College enrollment among veterans grew 67 percent from 2009–2012. Last semester alone, the Department of Veterans Affairs processed GI Bill enrollments for more than 500,000 individuals.

The rise in enrollments is being driven in part by Congress’s move to bolster college benefits for veterans to their most generous levels since World War II.

In 2008, Congress approved the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act, better known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which significantly expanded education benefits for veterans who served after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under the new law, any service member who has at least 90 days of active-duty service can have in-state tuition covered at any public college in the country, or receive up to $17,500 in tuition assistance at private schools; the latter amount is pegged to tuition increases and is now capped at $19,198. Benefits last for up to 36 months of schooling and can be used up to 15 years after a soldier is discharged.

The government has doled out nearly $40 billion of GI Bill benefits since 2009.

As opportunities for veterans increase, so have concerns about taxpayer money being used properly. Despite the billions of dollars spent, veterans have historically been given little guidance about how to choose a school, and the government, in turn, has not tracked how well beneficiaries are performing.

Veterans advocates had feared the GI Bill benefits could be put on the chopping block if there wasn’t proof that the expanded aid was working.
But efforts to ensure that taxpayer money is being used effectively are seeing success this year.

The Million Records Project, recently undertaken by Student Veterans of America (SVA) in collaboration with the VA and the academic research organization National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), has made major strides in tracking the educational outcomes of veterans.

The VA accumulated data about 800,000 individual GI Bill beneficiaries from 2002–2010, and SVA cross-referenced it with the NSC’s student transcript data.
The result, published in March, is one of the most comprehensive studies ever pertaining to veteran education outcomes. It helped dissipate concerns that veterans had exceptionally low graduation rates, finding that 51.8 percent of GI Bill beneficiaries received a credential, above the rate for other nontraditional students and only slightly below the 57 percent graduation rate of traditional students.
Another new tool for the government is a new unified complaint system for veterans who believe they have been wronged by their educational institution.

Veterans groups have long warned about unscrupulous degree programs that take advantage of the GI benefits by luring people into degree programs that cost more than expected or don’t offer them the improved job prospects they anticipate.

Prior to this year, “there was no system” for handling claims of fraud or abuse in a coordinated manner, said Steven Gonzalez, assistant director of the Veterans Employment and Education Division of the American Legion.

The lack of coordination was a major problem, because different complaints could require the involvement of a wide range of federal agencies. False advertising is the domain of the Federal Trade Commission, while large-scale fraud would under the Department of Justice’s jurisdiction.

“[Before,] if I wanted to make a complaint … I literally had to make six, seven different complaints just to get someone to hear what my issue was,” said Gonzalez.

The new complaint system, available since early January on the VA’s website, streamlines the system considerably by giving access to Veterans Affairs and the departments of Defense, Justice and Education, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. Each agency can scan complaints that are filed and look for matters that warrant its involvement.

Advocates say the system is a “game changer” that is better at both addressing individual complaints and identifying broader trends.

“We expected 1,000 [complaints] in the first year; we actually saw over 500 in the first week,” said Ryan Gallucci, deputy director of national legislative service for Veterans of Foreign Wars.

As of mid-April, 1,286 complaints had been filed with the system. According to Curt Coy, deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity at the VA, about half the complaints have prompted further investigation by a government agency.

Despite the new oversight, federal officials and advocates both emphasize that the surest way to improve educational outcome for veterans is to make sure they have the information they need to choose the right degree program.

“We don’t ever want to be in a situation where we tell a veteran, ‘Go to this school’ or ‘Don’t go to that school,’ ” instead of giving them the information to choose for themselves, said Coy.

To that end, in February, the VA launched the GI Bill Comparison Tool, an online feature designed to let veterans quickly get facts about the thousands of schools and job training programs, from Harvard University to Chicago’s HVAC Technical Institute.