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Veterans and their families have a new website to use as they shop around for colleges and try to make sense of their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released the GI Bill comparison tool on Tuesday. The site features datasets on the price and student outcomes of more than 10,000 VA-approved education and training programs.

With information on colleges’ overall (meaning not veteran-specific) graduation rates, median borrowing levels and loan default rates, the tool looks similar to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which is hosted on the White House website. But the VA site goes further.

GI Bill recipients can use the tool to figure out how much of the benefit they can receive. Many veterans had complained about having a hard time finding comprehensible information about the benefit. The new site is a user-friendly improvement, advocates for veterans said.

Each entry for institutions and academic programs on the site includes information on the estimated amount of GI Bill benefits that count toward tuition and fees, as well as projected housing allowances and book stipends.

The website says whether institutions have signed on to the voluntary “principles for excellence” that the Obama Administration established for serving veteran and military students. And it discloses whether each college participates in the VA’s Yellow Ribbon program, which can provide additional funding for students.

With the new tool GI Bill recipients can make “more informed, data-driven decisions on where to spend their hard-earned education benefits,” Peter Buryk, a project associate at the RAND Corporation who specializes in the well-being of veterans, said in an email. “In the long run, this behavior may help improve individual outcomes, like graduation rates and student debt, as well as overall GI Bill program efficacy and viability.”

GI Bill beneficiaries by institution

American Public U.  System 14,133
Baylor U. 413
Chicago State U. 231
Harvard U. 226
Houston Community College System 1,952
Ivy League  1,161
U. of California at Berkeley  343
U. of Georgia 471
U. of Maryland University College 7,645
U. of Toronto 3
Princeton U. 11
Valencia College 2,022
Weber State U. 1,062
Williams College  3

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

The website also gives the first official snapshot of how many veterans and their family members are attending each institution. For example, 343 GI Bill beneficiaries are enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley (see box for more).

Tuesday’s rollout of the new web tool follows last week’s release of a federal online complaint system for students who are veterans or members of the military. The VA, Education Department and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) plan to use that website to track student complaints and, potentially, crack down on poor-performing colleges.

President Obama got the ball rolling for both new websites two years ago with an executive order that forced colleges to disclose more about student veterans.

Building the comparison tool wasn’t easy, said experts. It draws information from 17 sources in addition to a few federal agencies. And the data sharing between the VA and Education Department is both rare and welcome, veterans' groups said.

“This GI Bill comparison tool is a step toward helping veterans use their federal benefits in a smarter, more economical way," said D. Wayne Robinson, president of Student Veterans of America, in a written statement.

Data and Policy

Veterans are at the center of much of the continued policy battles over for-profit institutions. But both for-profits and their critics joined veterans' groups in praising the new VA website.

“Over all, this is a great step forward,” said Carrie Wofford, a former senior counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs that committee, has been the primary antagonist of for-profits in recent years.

Wofford continued her pursuit of the sector by helping to form Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit group that seeks to protect student veterans and federal spending on the GI Bill and other educational benefits. She said the comparison tool would help veterans by giving them access to “real facts.”

Michael Dakduk agreed. Dakduk, who is vice president for military and veterans affairs at the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said the comparison tool is a resource for veterans to decide how best to use their GI Bill benefits.

“You go straight to the source of where you’re getting your benefits,” he said of the VA website. “We’re going to promote it.”

For-profits enroll many veterans. For example, more than 28,000 GI Bill recipients attend the University of Phoenix’s online programs alone, according to the new website. And a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office found that for-profits get the biggest piece of the pie among institutions that receive a high volume of GI Bill benefits.

The new site, however, applies to more than for-profits. And several advocates for veterans said they hope it will help pressure all of higher education to step up.

The goal is “holding everyone accountable,” said Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion’s national economic division.

In some ways the VA’s new websites go beyond what the Education Department provides to students. For example, Wofford said the department’s process for handling student complaints is stuck in the “dark ages.”

In the future the web comparison tool will be able to track student outcome data for veterans. And other benefits, like the tuition assistance that active-duty members of the military receive, may receive a similar treatment. That information will be added to the site as it comes in, sources said.

“This is just the beginning,” said Gonzalez.

Dakduk said the new data should be used to inform policy decisions.

“Let’s start to get the information from the veterans instead of relying on anecdote,” he said. “We need to start getting evidence that’s based on patterns.”

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