Seventy years ago, Congress made a transformational step in preparing veterans to excel after military service by passing the GI Bill, which provided veterans unprecedented access to education beyond high school.  As we celebrate our nation’s veterans on Nov. 11 – and the millions of student veterans who have benefited from the program – we must also take a careful look at what more should be done to equip our former service men and women for success in the next era. 

The GI Bill alone is no longer sufficient to provide veterans a pathway to thrive in a fast-changing economy and with an increasingly costly and complex higher education system.  As a proud veteran who served three tours of duty in Iraq and as the leader of a Student Veterans of America campus chapter, I can attest to this.

ADVERTISEMENT

Earning a degree wasn’t easy. Despite the help of the GI Bill, I was left with significant debt and wishing I’d had better support throughout my journey.

These struggles are common among veterans trying to earn a postsecondary credential. Three key changes at the federal level would help address the challenges and enable us to maximize assistance to students like me. Such common-sense reforms would benefit not just veterans, but the growing number of older, working, first-generation, immigrant and minority students who are quickly becoming the new college majority. 

First, we need to ensure greater flexibility in how student aid – including GI Bill benefits and other federal aid – is delivered. As an example, the GI Bill offers generous support for tuition, housing, textbooks and supplies, but because its delivery is moored to when veterans are enrolled in courses, students can be left with gaps in coverage.  

While I was earning my bachelor’s degree at Hawaii Pacific University, for instance, I had to take out loans during the month-long winter breaks and over summers to help cover housing costs. I couldn’t access GI Bill support while I was not enrolled in class, but as an adult without family support, I still had to pay rent.  And though I worked part-time throughout college, finding a full-time job to support myself during short-term academic breaks proved difficult.    

Many student veterans face similar challenges, especially since 87 percent of student veterans are older than 25. For older, working students, current rules for aid delivery can make it difficult to cover the costs for a myriad of unanticipated expenses, such as housing, childcare and transportation, which might arise as they earn a postsecondary education. And while I persisted in college – and have more than $45,000 in outstanding debt today– the additional cost could force some students to drop out. Making aid delivery more nimble could address this by allowing students to access the resources they need on the timetable that best meets their needs. 

In addition to greater flexibility, student veterans also need better access to information about the numerous benefits available to them as veterans. I learned about one such support – the vocational rehabilitation and employment program–from another student in passing. I’m now utilizing the program, which offers additional support to help veterans advance their education, to obtain my master’s degree, but I could have easily missed out on the opportunity without hearing about it by chance.

Colleges and universities play a role in ensuring students know about the benefits available to them, but federal entities providing the programs also have a vested interest in informing students – including veterans and the wider swath of students who could benefit from them – that such opportunities exist.  Federal policy reforms could help ensure that information about these programs is easily accessible. 

Finally, equally important is making sure student veterans understand their educational options. Unlike decades ago, there are now a myriad of providers of postsecondary education, and they vary widely in cost, outcomes and quality. We need to create a clear, comprehensive system of information about higher education programs’ outcomes and costs so that it’s easy for all students to navigate the best pathway for them. The GI Bill Comparison Tool is a good starting place for veterans seeking higher education. 

None of these changes is as sweeping as the dramatic GI Bill passed decades ago, but each could make a powerful impact. By embracing these shifts, we could keep the mission of the GI Bill alive in the 21st century and make college more accessible, affordable and navigable for all students. That would usher in a new era of success for the next generation, including veterans, as well as today’s increasingly older, multitasking and diverse majority.

Santana is a graduate student and leader of the Student Veterans Network at Hawaii Pacific University.