As states and the federal government continue to debate financial support for military personnel who want to attend (or return to) college, some states have taken their own initiative. Now, recently released enrollment data for the University of Wisconsin System could offer a preview of what states can expect in the coming years -- despite new research documenting the persistent educational gaps between veterans and non-veterans.
The university system's latest data found that out of 173,313 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled this fall, 3,975 are veterans, an increase from 3,138 in fall 2006 and 2,517 in fall 2005. Compared with a 2.1-percent increase in the total student population over last year, the number of veterans jumped nearly 27 percent.
A spokesman for the system said the increase could be attributed to the increasing numbers of soldiers returning home from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a reimbursement program for veterans in the state that expanded its coverage to 100 percent of tuition this semester. Although veterans continue to receive their educational benefits, however, a budget standoff threatens the long-term financial viability of the program.
When the state passed the "Wisconsin G.I. Bill" in 2005, it covered half of veterans' tuition fees at the university system and at public technical colleges, for any undergraduate, graduate or professional course of study. It requires that veterans were state residents at the time they enlisted, among other criteria, and also covers children and spouses. But no money was appropriated to fund the bill until this year, according to David F. Giroux, executive director of communications and external relations for the university system.
UW expects the growth in veteran enrollments to continue, at a projected $41.8 million price tag for covering tuition remissions over the next two years. The legislature, so far, will cover $9.5 million of those costs for the system, with the university picking up an additional $14.2 million. The gap remains over $18 million through the 2009 fiscal year.
According to the data, 3,177 veterans and their dependents are receiving benefits through the Wisconsin law this fall, from 2,441 the previous semester.
These recent figures don't necessarily square -- or compare -- with those in a journal article from the latest issue of Sociology of Education by Jay Teachman, a professor of sociology at Western Washington University. The article, using data from men who served primarily in the 1980s, found a varying impact of military service on subsequent educational attainment depending on several factors. A key finding, however, compared the effectiveness of the original G.I. Bill in encouraging World War II veterans to pursue a college education, compared with veterans of Vietnam and those in the modern all-volunteer force.
Teachman's article suggests that the current voluntary-participation model of the G.I. Bill, in which enlisted soldiers contribute from their salaries, tilts the benefits toward "[o]nly the most consistently motivated individuals."
"Service in the military retards education, leading to a veteran deficit in schooling at the time of discharge," the article states. "Even though some veterans are able to reduce this deficit over time, only veterans with higher [Armed Forces Qualification Test] scores are able to eliminate it."
Although the article does not examine the effects on recent veterans, Teachman said his research wouldn't necessarily predict a sudden increase in veteran enrollments. "It would surprise me," he said. "I don’t see what would generate that offhand, but again I don’t know if there are special programs or preferences” to encourage higher levels of enrollment.
Wisconsin's educational benefits for veterans would certainly belong to that category, although a strict causality can't be ascertained.