By Meg Wagner, Anthony Cave and Hannah Winston
The GI Bill has paid for nearly 1 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to go to school at a cost about $30 billion since 2009, but the federal government has yet to document how many of those students graduated, much less whether they stayed in school.
Neither the Department of Veterans Affairs nor other agencies maintains data that tracks retention and graduation rates among students under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Without that data, some worry those benefits could be in danger.
Florida is among five states that have been granted the most GI Bill funds since August 2009: at least $7.8 billion split between them, according to a News21 review.
“We need to track these numbers to defend the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” said Michael Dakduk, executive director of the Student Veterans of America, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. “It’s an investment into our military. It’s an investment into our country.”
Every previous version of the GI Bill has faced elimination or reduction, Dakduk said. The World War II GI Bill expired after 12 years, and educational benefits during the Korean and Vietnam War eras were reduced as those conflicts ended.
“History proves to me that it’s a very, very real threat,” Dakduk said. “This is a benefit that could definitely be scaled back as involvement winds down overseas — unless we can prove a return on investment.”
The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, designed to provide an education to those who served after Sept. 10, 2001, approves benefits for use toward graduate and undergraduate degrees, as well as technical training, which includes everything from nursing and management to truck driving and acupuncture.
Benefits have been disbursed to public and private nonprofit schools, as well as to private, for-profit universities and institutes, which collected more than $639 million by July 2010.
Spending on the Post-9/11 GI Bill is estimated to hit $42 billion next year, according to VA and White House projections.
The VA has not released a 2011 breakdown of payments to individual schools, because of inaccurate entries into its system, VA spokesman Randal Noller said in an email. The VA did release the number of veterans trained at each school through January 2013, but that list includes duplication among students who transfer schools. The department also released a report of funding to each county under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but not total benefits paid to each school.
VA officials replied to auditors in a May 2013 Government Accountability Office report that the primary VA job is to provide benefits, “not to be responsible for veterans’ individual academic performance or goals.”
The GAO report, however, called it “critical” for the VA “to not only collect outcome data, but also plan how it will use such data to improve management of its education benefits performance.”
Without that, auditors concluded, it’s difficult for the VA to help students and “inform policymakers about the value veterans are receiving for the government’s substantial investment.”
Student Veterans of America is pursuing a more proactive role. In January, the organization announced it would collect college graduation rates for veterans. Joining the VA and the National Student Clearinghouse, SVA hopes the information will show veteran outcomes on campus.
Numbers aren’t expected until later this year. The project, estimated to cost $300,000 is still awaiting some financial backing, Dakduk said.
Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and former secretary of the Navy, proposed the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2007 as an updated version of the 1944 GI Bill, which educated 7.8 million World War II veterans.
In the first year of benefits payments, from August 2009 to July 2010, 1,968 public schools took in more than $696 million to educate 203,790 veterans, with spending averaging about $3,418 a student, according to VA data.
Private schools, New York University and George Washington University among them, received $416 million for teaching 49,470 veterans, about $8,409 a student.
For-profit schools collected nearly as much funding as public institutions, more than $639 million, for 76,746 veterans, or an average of $8,337 for each student.
For-profit institutions — the University of Phoenix, ITT Technical Institute and the Art Institutes, for example — have drawn particular scrutiny for collecting GI Bill money.
Led by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in 2010 launched a two-year investigation into for-profit colleges.
The study found that during the 2010-2011 school year, for-profit schools constituted eight of the top 10 schools that collected GI Bill funds. The University of Maryland at No. 8 and University of Texas at No. 10 were the only public institutions that made the top 10 list.
Harkin’s committee questioned whether veterans attending for-profit schools were benefiting from the education or being used to meet certain federal funding requirements. For-profit colleges can collect no more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal sources, such as Pell grants and similar U.S.-backed student aid. Because the Post-9/11 GI Bill is not counted as federal student aid, the Harkin report and others asserted that for-profit schools aggressively recruited veterans to stay under the 90 percent cap.
The Harkin report cited constant phone calls by recruiters, pressuring applicants to sign contracts before speaking to a financial adviser, and similar tactics. It also asserted that the millions of dollars put toward the education of these veterans does not benefit them once they start looking for jobs. At a July Senate hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, veterans advocates complained that for-profit schools “target” veterans as “nothing more than dollar signs in uniform.”
Steve Gunderson, CEO and president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, a Washington D.C.-based lobby, said in an interview: “There are good and bad schools in all of higher education. But they should go after the bad schools and not a whole sector.
“Are there bad schools in our sector? Yes. Are their bad schools in all of higher education? Absolutely,” he said.
Gunderson said the argument that for-profits are not beneficial for veterans is unfair because there is no data to prove public schools do any better than private schools, or the reverse.
The U.S. Department of Education has suggested a system to track student veterans and active service members while they attend higher-education institutions. The proposed system would track the number of Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries and Department of Defense Tuition Assistance recipients, as well as how much money each school receives. The system would be in place for the 2014-2015 school year and collect data from the previous school year. The department did not have a deadline for approval.
Without those numbers, Gunderson said it’s unfair to presume that public schools are better for students than for-profit institutions.
The colleges his organization represents offer an alternative to the traditional four-year model, Gunderson said. Sometimes, these are better for veterans because they fit the schedules of those returning from war. Many have jobs and families, he said.
“The last thing they want to do is sit in a dorm or take five, three-hour-credit courses,” he said in an interview.
Michael Green, a Marine Corps veteran studying at the University of Phoenix Murrieta, Calif., campus, chose the school because of its flexible schedule, he said. Green works on an accelerated pace that traditional universities don’t offer, taking classes in five-week sessions instead of the typical 16-week semester.
Although the University of Phoenix was reaccredited for 10 years, the Higher Learning Commission in July gave the school two years to address concerns over governance, assessment of student learning, and faculty research and scholarship.
Green, who served three tours in Iraq before leaving in June 2012, balances a seasonal job as a high school football coach with night classes toward his business management degree. He said the Phoenix schedule works for veterans and other non-traditional students.
“We got stay-at-home moms and guys who are working 40, 60 hours a week,” he said. “The classes are convenient, the homework is challenging. In my eyes it is a good university.”
Before joining the Marines, Nick Lanteri attended Fitchburg (Mass.) State College, where he had fun, he said, and didn’t care about accomplishing anything.
After returning home from two tours in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury, Lanteri said he didn’t take online courses, because he couldn’t focus on them.
“I just can’t sit in front of a computer that long. I can’t,” he said. “And for me, a lot of the stuff — even in classes now — a lot of stuff, they’ll explain it, but I kind of need that face-to-face explanation.”
Now a criminal-justice major at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Lanteri said he’s more focused on finishing his degree.
“Because it’s hard for me to be in those large classrooms, and in those large groups of people,” he said, “school for me, now, is a goal to get accomplished. It’s like an obstacle I need to conquer.”
With student veterans such as Lanteri, who has attended multiple schools, the population proves to be a difficult group to track.
Most surveys of graduation rates only count first-time college students, or those who enter degree programs without any previous college credits. That means veterans who started degrees before their enlistment or took classes while still in the military aren’t counted.
Some veterans enroll part-time and take longer to finish their degrees, so they can’t be tracked by traditional four-year graduation rates.
Corwin Cherry, who served in Iraq in 2003, enrolled in what then was Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College after he left the military in 2005.
Cherry, 34, has PTSD and said the chaotic nature of the classroom could trigger panic attacks and headaches.
“You don’t like crowds. You don’t like a lot of stuff going on at the same time,” he said. “So when you’re in a little, small classroom with a lot of people you don’t know, you just can’t stay focused on it.”
After failing several classes, Cherry switched to Kaplan University, a private for-profit school that allows him to take all his courses online.
Taking classes at home, in a quiet environment he’s comfortable in, Cherry plans to graduate with a degree in alternative medicine in 2017, he said.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides for 36 months, about four academic years, of benefits.
For veterans attending a public school in a state where they have residency, benefits cover full tuition. For veterans enrolled at a public school outside of their home state, the GI Bill covers up to the cost of the most-expensive undergraduate public tuition in that state, leaving the student to pay the difference.
At private and for-profit schools, benefits cover up to $18,077.50 an academic year.
“There’s never been a more generous GI Bill,” said Rod Davis, director of the Texas A&M University System Veterans Support Office. “We’re in better shape than we’ve ever been before.”
In addition to tuition benefits, students receive a monthly housing allowance depending on their school’s location, from $768 in Alpena, Mich., to $3,257 in New York City. Allowances average between $1,000 and $1,400, while students whose schoolwork is exclusively online get $684 a month, according to the VA.
Without comprehensive data on student veteran outcomes, some schools have begun tracking their veteran enrollment. Arizona State University calculates veteran retention rates by tracking military students within larger universitywide surveys.
Joanna Sweatt, ASU’s military advocate, reported a 94 to 96 percent retention rate between fall 2012 and spring 2013 for first-year veterans at ASU. The numbers show that ASU veterans services, which include academic support and counseling, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill keep veterans in the classroom, she said.
“Someone’s inevitably going to ask, ‘Is that money being spent well?’” she said. “These numbers help show that it is.”
In 2011, Operation College Promise, a Trenton, N.J.-based national policy program, began a six-year survey to track about 700 Post-9/11 GI Bill students on 21 campuses nationwide.
The first installment of that survey, which will show retention rates for the 2011-2012 academic year, is scheduled to be released later this year. Preliminary numbers are promising, said Wendy Lang, executive director of the program, which focuses on the transition of veterans into postsecondary education.
“They’re progressing toward a degree just as efficiently, if not more efficiently, than your traditional student,” she said.