Veterans Grade GI Bill

November 10, 2010

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has been a significant motivator for veterans to pursue postsecondary education, but administrative hoops continue to create profound confusion and frustration for a notable number of participants, a new report finds.

The American Council on Education’s report, “Service Members in School: Military Veterans' Experiences Using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Pursuing Higher Education,” provides what may be the most comprehensive independent assessment to date of the bill’s effectiveness. Drawn from surveys and focus groups, the report gives a portrait of the complex journey of soldiers transitioning from the military into the classroom.

Unsurprisingly, students complained of a bureaucratic maze that suggests room for improvement for all parties, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the colleges serving veterans. Common sources of complaints from veterans: lengthy hold times on VA hotlines, inconsistent credit transfer policies within institutions, delayed payments from the VA and a fundamental lack of clarity about what the checks that the VA sends are even intended to cover.

There are bright spots, however. Veterans were particularly pleased, for instance, with the bill’s coverage of expenses beyond tuition, including living allowances and book stipends. About one-quarter of respondents also said the new GI Bill had driven their decision to enroll in higher education.

The report, which was supported by funding from the Lumina Foundation for Education, was drawn from surveys of 230 veterans -- about a 46 percent response rate -- and 22 student focus groups across 13 institutions. The focus groups were conducted in three states with large numbers of veterans -- Arizona, Ohio and Virginia.

The backlog of payments from the VA has been well documented, but the report gives a sense of the severity of the problem. Of 200 respondents who reported on their experiences receiving GI Bill benefits, 43 percent described it as a “moderate or major challenge.” That figure was significantly more pronounced at public two-year colleges, where 67 percent of respondents said getting benefits was difficult.

While definitive data do not exist to suggest why some claims were processed more quickly than others, the report notes anecdotally that some of the students who reported shorter wait times applied early -- before a deluge of applicants created a backlog at the VA.

“We think this is going to be a problem that gradually corrects itself as the VA upgrades its infrastructure,” said Jennifer L. Steele, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and co-author of the report.

A common frustration among veterans is the lack of an online accounting system where they can keep track of payments, the report found. Since some veterans have received overpayments -- requiring them to repay the VA -- there’s a premium on knowing what a payment is actually for, focus groups explained. Instead, money is often directly deposited into accounts without any useful accompanying description, students said.

“I don’t know if that’s [for] housing, if it’s [for] books, just an accounting error, or what,” one student said in a focus group. “So, if I get this money, it’s there to spend on whatever. You’re just somewhat fearful that you are going to get a letter in the mail that says, 'Hey! You owe us this much money, because we overpaid you.' ”

Students in all 13 focus groups complained, in one way or another, about tracking payments, the report noted. VA officials, however, did not respond to an e-mail inquiry Tuesday about whether any system is being developed to address this widely expressed concern.

Other challenges for students include transferring credits, the report notes. Nearly 57 percent of respondents said they had attempted to transfer military training or academic credits to another institution, and among those fewer than half -- 47 percent -- said they were satisfied with the number of credits the receiving institution accepted.

Anecdotally, students in focus groups told stories of inconsistencies in credit transfer policies across academic departments within the same institutions. By way of example, one student noted that she could not transfer any credits after two years of study at a military foreign language institute. At the same time, her spouse -- who trained in a different language at the same military institute -- was able to receive full credit from a different foreign language department for his studies.

The challenges veterans face span well beyond red tape. About 46 percent of survey respondents taking college classes said they work more than 30 hours a week. Despite the financial support offered by the GI Bill, about 67 percent of respondents described financially supporting themselves and their families as a “moderate” or “major” challenge.

Transitioning from the military into college life also presents hurdles for many veterans. While they share challenges reported by many nontraditional students -- balancing work, family and academics, for instance -- they also bring other sets of issues linked to their experiences as veterans. About 10 percent of focus group participants said they had physical or psychological challenges resulting from their military service.

Some of the key challenges for veterans may be the cultural differences between life in the military and academe. One student interviewed for the report described struggles transitioning from the clearly defined world of the military to the more nebulous nature of college life.

“Getting here, the standard is so high,” the student said. “That was where I really struggled. I thought I was really strong in some areas, but when I came here I found it was like comparing apples to oranges.… [In the military] the expectations are clear; it is very structured, but here, every professor does something different.”

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