A student and veteran attending the University of Minnesota named Zac Bair provides a perfect example of how the GI Bill helps millions of veterans improve their life. Bair’s primary motivation for enlisting in the Army was to pay for higher education. Bair was deployed to Afghanistan three times and was then honorably discharged. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has been a major help to Bair, covering his tuition completely, providing a stipend to cover books and supplies, and an allowance to cover living costs like rent or mortgage. Bair says that if it weren’t for the GI Bill, he would probably be working entry-level jobs and struggling to make ends meet. “It’s been a huge load off my shoulders,” he said.
While case studies like Bair can be revealing as to how effective the GI Bill program is, they can only provide so much information, and cannot answer the major question that lawmakers and taxpayers alike want to know the answer to: how much, if any, of the dollars spent on the GI Bill program are wasted? This question continues to become more and more pertinent, as the number of students helped by the Post-9/11 GI Bill exceeds 1 million and the bill for the program exceeds $30 billion since the new GI Bill went into effect. But the answer to this question is very difficult to find.
But at the same time, the retention rate at the University for these students has jumped. The combination of these two effects would indicate that veterans are sticking with school, but taking longer to graduate. This makes perfect sense, especially when juxtaposed with the much larger-scope numbers that were released by the Student Veterans of America. The SVA conducted what was called The Million Records Project, which successfully offered a far more comprehensive understanding of student veterans as a whole and the effectiveness of the dollars spent on the GI Bill.
According to the SVA research, the average veteran takes around six years to complete their bachelor’s degree, with just a smidgen over half of all veterans graduating with a degree. However, the average veteran’s path to a degree wouldn’t probably be called ‘linear’, according to Dr. Chris Cate, the vice president of research for the SVA. Veterans are significantly more likely than civilian university students to have jobs, families, or (obviously) military obligations that take time away from their studies and make it much more difficult or even impossible to do school full-time. In addition, a veterans experiences on the battlefield can make the culture and expectations of campus life more difficult to handle than a civilian would find them. These things can either interrupt or extend their education, which makes definitively tracking how many veterans are successful in their education difficult.
The call for numbers and statistics on GI Bill graduates arose around the time that the first Post-9/11 Gi Bill veterans began to graduate, and the SVA research provides a valuable benchmark in keeping track of our veterans and their performance in school. Unfortunately, the Million Records Project is the only one of its kind at this point, but it will provide a valuable and powerful foundation for further research, both on a national level and a state level. Most universities do not have any sort of way of tracking the graduation and retention rates specifically for veterans, and as universities put such systems in place, more data will surface that will not only let us know how the GI Bill program is working, but how to make it better, and how to help more veterans graduate.
It’s easier said than done to accurately track veteran students. For the most part, veterans have to self-identify and be receiving GI Bill benefits in order to be included in the current count. Since GI Bill benefits can also be used for a veteran’s dependent, simply because the GI Bill benefit is being used does not mean that a veteran is attending college. The primary goal with all the research on the effectiveness of the GI Bill is to find ways to help the dollars spent on our nation’s veterans be as effective as they can be.