Veterans Day survey: 300,000 use revamped GI Bill

In a survey released before Veterans Day, student veterans said they were largely happy with the GI Bill. But some struggle with credit-transfer options, and many find difficulty adjusting to college life.

Jerry Holt/Minneapolis Star Tribune/Newscom
Kyle Jones, a veteran of the Marine Corps, goes through orientation at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., on September 8, 2009. A new survey released ahead of Veterans Day found approval of the revamped GI Bill, but some complained about its complexity and the challenge of adjusting to college after the military.

Thanks to the new GI Bill – the most generous since the original was passed during World War II – the number of veterans among America’s college students is surging.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect in August 2009, and last year more than half a million current and former military students applied for eligibility. More than 300,000 used the new benefits to enroll in college or graduate school.

But the new program has had its challenges, as both colleges and the Department of Veterans Affairs scramble to adapt and as veterans struggle to understand the often-complex benefits.

A new study from the American Council on Education (ACE) surveyed veterans’ experiences in that first year and paints a picture of where the new bill is succeeding and where it’s falling short. Among its findings:

• About a quarter of those surveyed said the new GI Bill drove their decision to enroll in higher education.

• Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents said they had trouble understanding their benefits and options.

• Eighteen percent of respondents said the GI Bill benefits drove their choice of school.

Student veterans were largely happy with many elements of the bill – particularly the fact that, for the first time since 1952, the VA pays tuition and fees directly to colleges, rather than to veterans. Also, the VA pays students a separate stipend for books and living expenses.

Students don’t have to pay into the program to be eligible: It’s a benefit for any veteran who served in the military after Sept. 11, 2001. And they can use the benefit to attend private colleges if their school will split the difference of the cost of a public college with the VA. (Typically, the program covers the cost of the highest in-state tuition at a public university.)

But students also struggled with inconsistent and unclear credit-transfer options, as well as frequent delayed tuition and living stipends from the VA (a problem the department is addressing). Many have had difficulties adjusting to life on a college campus, without the supports they need.

“The orientation system is often aimed at kids fresh out of high school,” says Jennifer Steele, a researcher with the RAND Corp. who wrote the study for ACE.

Ms. Steele noted the need for more transparency and consistency in policies for things like transferring military experience into credits. In one glaring example, a student veteran at a public four-year college said that a foreign-language department at her school refused to grant her even a single credit for the two years of language study she’d done at a military institute, while her husband – at the same college – was granted full credit from a different foreign-language department for the training he’d done at the same institute.

Some of the students who adapted the most easily to postmilitary life, Steele says, were those with more connections to other veterans – a major reason Student Veterans of America (SVA) was founded in 2008.

These days, it has more than 340 chapters, says deputy executive director Michael Dakduk, and it's adding new chapters every week.

According to Mr. Dakduk, himself a student, the transition to campus life is often hard even for relatively young veterans, who may not be that much older than many other freshmen.

“It might not be a major age gap with their peers, but it becomes a major gap when you’re 24 years old and have two combat tours,” he says. “All of a sudden your life experiences are so different.”

The SVA has helped some colleges – including George Washington University and the University of Arizona, which now offers priority registration to all veterans – develop greater supports to help accommodate the often-distinct needs of veterans, says Dakduk.

He, like most veterans, is a big fan of the expanded benefits under the new GI Bill (officially titled the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008), but he adds that it’s not perfect. The SVA is lobbying to change the fact that veterans attending online colleges, for instance, can’t get a housing stipend.

“It discriminates against individuals who may not be able to go to school in a traditional brick-and-mortar institution," Dakduk says.

And he’s not thrilled with a big discrepancy on the size of the benefit based on where a veteran lives.

Last week, the National Survey of Student Engagement – an annual study produced by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research – also found that student veterans often feel less supported than other students.

According to the survey, veterans were less likely to interact with instructors or to participate in opportunities like internships. They spent as much time studying as nonveterans but were generally less engaged, and they were more likely to transfer between schools.

“Based on these results, baccalaureate-granting institutions should seek ways to more effectively engage student veterans in effective educational practices and provide them with the supportive environments that promote success,” the study concluded.

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