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A military service member in fatigues on a college campus

The report is the first of its kind, providing definitive data on the outcomes of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

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A new report by a team of researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the American Institutes for Research (whose researchers were embedded at the Census Bureau as "Special-Sworn Status employees"), provides the first in-depth assessment of the influence of the Post-9/11 GI Bill on college access and student success since its enactment in 2008.

The bill provides grants to veterans who served after Sept. 10, 2001, for up to the full cost of tuition at any public institution in the state where they reside.

The report’s findings show that more than half of the 2.7 million eligible veterans had taken advantage of the financial aid benefits by 2020 (54 percent). The number is even higher when veterans who transferred their eligibility to a spouse or child are included (62 percent).

The report also found that the six-year college completion rate for veterans who used the program’s benefits (47 percent) was roughly double that of other financially independent students nationally (23 percent).

And although earnings varied by field of study, GI Bill users with an associate or bachelor’s degree earned, on average, $44,100 and $55,700, respectively, compared to a national average of $41,300 for workers with some college credit but no degree.

Alexandria Walton Radford, senior director of AIR’s Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education and lead author of the report, said the report took seven years to produce and required “unprecedented” levels of cross-agency data sharing, which reflects a monumental step in supporting student veterans.

“It’s really exciting that this day has finally arrived,” she said. “The Post-9/11 GI Bill has been a huge investment that we’ve made in our veterans, and that’s terrific. But the fact is that we did not have all the information that lived in all these various silos put together to be able to answer how that has been going.”

Congress budgeted approximately $108 billion for the GI Bill between 2009 and 2020, but there has been little to no definitive analysis of its outcomes across all military branches until now.

The study was made possible through the sharing of individual-level data among multiple federal agencies, including the Departments of Education, Defense and Veterans Affairs, and the Internal Revenue Service.

The researcher team and veterans’ affairs advocates say that more data sharing in the future will be crucial for improving various kinds of student support services, such as optimizing financial aid or meeting students’ basic needs. However, the report also notes that even veteran-specific data could be relevant to discussions about college access, tuition-free college and the labor market value of different degrees in general.

“It clearly helps us think about college access issues and … certainly provides information about what completion rates look like for those who receive this kind of financial support,” Radford said. “By putting data together, we can get some real answers. And in this data …environment, we should be leveraging that data and making the most of it.”

Fresh Outcomes Data

In addition to demonstrating how many veterans took advantage of the program, the data integration also allowed the research team to analyze postenrollment outcomes correlated with the bill, such as levels of associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree completion as well as postgraduation income levels.

Joshua Jacobs, under secretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, is eager to utilize the data in his work moving forward.

“Reports like this one enhance our ability to translate its insights into opportunities to better support the educational needs of more student veterans,” he said in a press release about the report.

Kelly McManus, vice president of higher education at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy that assisted in the report, believes it provides influential, measurable insight into how the government’s investment has helped members of the military climb the economic ladder.

“We’re looking forward to policymakers using this data to improve the existing program and push for even more data sharing and transparency,” she said.

Although the data generally demonstrate positive postgraduate outcomes, Sydney Matthes, chief program officer of Service to School, a national organization that provides free college counseling to veterans, noted the results reflect general trends of higher education, including the demographic-based inequities.

For example, despite more female veterans utilizing GI Bill benefits to enroll in higher education, they earned significantly less in the labor market than their male counterparts upon graduation.

And although there were higher enrollment rates among veterans from minority racial groups than white veterans, which goes against national enrollment trends, student veterans of color were still less likely to earn a degree within six years than veterans over all.

The report also documented lower use of the GI Bill among veterans who live in rural areas in comparison to urban and suburbs-based peers. Low rural enrollment rates for nonveteran students have also been a growing area of focus for admissions officers across the country.

Matthes anticipates that the data will also help in “opening doors” for student affairs practitioners.

“We haven’t really understood what challenges veterans face on college campuses,” Matthes said. “Most colleges have a first-generation student support network or a Black Student Union, and sure, they may have a Student Veterans of America club, but how can the administrative team on these college campuses better support those students?”

Matthes and others noted a lack of data on the kinds of institutions students were choosing to attend with their GI Bill benefits.

A high number of student veterans have historically enrolled at for-profit colleges with poor academic support systems and extremely low degree completion rates. Veterans’ advocates say this was a result of a loophole in federal legislation, which previously incentivized for-profit institutions to recruit veterans by allowing the colleges to use the GI Bill to offset a cap on federal student aid. That loophole was closed by federal lawmakers in March 2021.

“It’s wonderful to be able to say that the completion rates are higher,” Matthes said. “But one of the issues we continue to see is there’s such a discrepancy [in] where veterans are enrolling.”

Radford hopes the data will also prompt investigations into why the remaining 46 percent of eligible veterans don’t utilize the bill, which she described as “key for improving policies and practices.”

“This report is incredibly helpful, but we could still be doing better to understand the use of the benefits,” Matthes said.

This article was corrected to reflect that the report on the Post-9/11 GI Bill was produced by a team of researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the American Institutes for Research. The article previously said the report was solely produced by the American Institutes for Research.

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