USA TODAY. March 24, 2014. By Gregg Zoroya.
Just over half of veterans who sought a higher education from 2002 through 2013 under the GI Bill completed schooling ranging from vocational training to post-graduate, according to an unprecedented review of nearly 800,000 college records to be released Monday.
The research released by the Student Veterans of America service organization is the first in-depth look at how those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are performing in college. While analysts say results could be better, the numbers appear to refute reports — some in the media, some anecdotal — that most of these veterans are dropping out or failing in college.
About one in three of the veterans earned a bachelor's degree or higher.
"I've heard it over the last few years about the disaster of these students. That it's terrible, (that) they're just flunking at huge rates," says Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, a Purdue University professor and director of the Military Family Research Institute, who studied the report. "That's not right."
The completion rate for these veterans of 51.7% is lower than the four-year graduation rate for younger, non-veteran peers, which was 59% in 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"Looking at the obstacles and the issues that student vets have to deal with. ... I think we're doing quite well," says D. Wayne Robinson, a former Army command sergeant major and now president and CEO of Student Veterans of America.
The most sought-after undergraduate degrees by veterans were in business, social sciences, homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting, and computer and information services.
Researchers say veterans appear to be doing better than other so-called non-traditional students — those who delay attending college, enroll part-time or have children, factors common with many current veterans.
Curtis Coy, who oversees GI benefits as deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity for the Department of Veterans Affairs, says the results "clearly show that the investment the American taxpayer has made in (veterans') education is well worth it."
The study was a collaboration of Student Veterans of America , the VA and the National Student Clearinghouse, which compiles enrollment and graduation data.
Completion rates varied for veterans depending upon branch of service, and Robinson says this could be proof of the strain of war. The largely ground combat duty of Iraq and Afghanistan fell disproportionately on Army soldiers and Marines.
Air Force veterans had a higher academic completion rate of 67%, while Army veterans were at 47% and Marine veterans at 45%.
Comparisons with civilian graduation rates aren't precise.
Most colleges calculate graduation rates based on students who enroll in their institution and obtain a four-year undergraduate degree.
The veterans completion rate counted those who used GI Bill benefits to obtain a bachelor's or graduate degree, but also a vocational certificate or associate degree, even those who completed an on-the-job training course.
It also allowed more time — the full 10 years the records covered — for a veteran to complete an education and be counted.
Student Veterans spokesman Will Hubbard says the results show that these former servicemembers are persistent in pursuing higher education, even it if takes more than four years.
Counting completions this way, the report says, was out of consideration for the strain and vagaries of service — National Guard or reservists whose lives were interrupted by multiple deployments, or active-duty troops who needed time after war and the military to adjust to civilian life.
Comparisons with prior war generations also are difficult, the report says. Studies have shown that about half of those veterans eligible for the GI Bill after World War II obtained a training certificate or college education, as did about two-thirds of Vietnam veterans, according to a 1976 VA study.
The new study looked at a sample of the roughly 3.5 million veterans who used education benefits in 2002-2010 — 500,000 who used the Montgomery GI Bill, and another 500,000 who used a more generous post-9/11 benefit that became available in 2009 for the Iraq and Afghanistan War generation
After excluding those still in school, researchers sifted 788,915 records representing one out of five veterans who used federal education benefits in the 2002-2010 time period. They tracked completion rates through 2013.
The Montgomery benefits, created in 1985 as a recruitment incentive, provide a monthly stipend and can be used any time up to10 years after leaving the service. The post-9/11 GI Bill covers tuition, housing and books and is good any time up to 15 years.The government has spent $34 billion on the new GI bill assisting veterans.
Among other findings, about 80% of the veterans chose public schools. Some 21% were women, in contrast with females making up only 15% of the military. About one in four veterans who enrolled were age 25-29.