Measuring and Improving Success: Active Duty and Veteran Students

By Josh Cohen
Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

Two publications recently provided a fresh look at how military and veteran students are faring in postsecondary education. Many active duty servicemembers and veterans are utilizing federal education assistance programs, such as the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill, to help further their education and position themselves as competitive in today’s job market. Both the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post 9/11 GI Bill provide current and former military servicemembers, and their dependents, with financial assistance for tuition, books, and living expenses associated with postsecondary education.

In 2011, an estimated 1 million veterans and their dependents received close to $10 billion dollars in education benefits. With so many of these individuals taking advantage of federal grants, two questions loom: 1) at what rates are student servicemembers and veterans completing credentials; and 2) how can these men and women successfully navigating postsecondary environments? These questions were addressed in two recent publications: A report published by The Million Records Project and an article published in Change magazine.

The Million Records Project – a partnership between the Student Veterans of America, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and the National Student Clearinghouse – brought together data from its three collaborating organizations to create a database to accurately measure college completion rates of students using funds from one of the two programs. Earlier this year, the partnership published a report showing a 51.7 percent completion rate among participants who had used either the Montgomery GI Bill between 2002 and 2010 or the Post-9/11 GI Bill between 2009 and 2010 – individuals who used both bills (104,105) were eliminated from the original 1,000,000 person sample. It should be noted that since the participants who began their education closer to 2010 may have not had time to finish their degrees by the time the data were analyzed, the actual completion rate is potentially higher.

Average time-to-completion for veterans first earning an associate’s degree was 5.1 years and 6.3 years for a bachelor’s degree (the report points out that in calculating these statistics researchers did not control for changes from full-time to part-time enrollment, as well as non-continuous enrollment - two moves that are common among student veterans). The report also finds that 49.6 percent of student veterans who had earned a degree prior to accessing GI benefits earned an additional/higher-level degree after usage; also, 79.4 percent of those in the sample who earned an associate or bachelor’s degree did so after accessing their GI benefits. These data support the legitimacy of GI benefits as a mechanism for facilitating student veteran postsecondary success.

While the statistics from the Million Records Project suggest the efficacy of GI benefits, another recent publication shows a serious shortcoming in our understanding of how well institutions serve servicemembers and veterans. In “Helping Student Servicemembers and Veterans Succeed” (published in the March/April 2014 issue of Change), Ron Callahan and Dave Jarrat argue that while almost 75 percent of postsecondary institutions have resources dedicated to veteran affairs, the majority of schools lack the appropriate data to analyze the effectiveness of these services.

This article also examines some of the challenges that these students can face in the postsecondary system. The authors point out how student servicemembers and veterans can face difficulties transitioning from a highly-structured military environment to a less-regimented civilian life, and these students may need extra support in this move. Failure to do so may result in student servicemembers and veterans believing that they are incapable of performing as college students and/or administrators and faculty doubting their potential.

Finally, in many cases, military benefits may not cover the entire cost of attending school while supporting a family. GI Bill benefits are based on the amount of active duty service and zip code of residence. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs GI Bill Comparison Tool, the estimated annual GI benefit at The Ohio State University for someone with 36+ months of active duty service is 100% of instate tuition and a $1000 book stipend, but a housing allowance of only $1,194 per month (tuition assistance, book stipend, and housing allowance are pro-rated for those with fewer than 36 months of active duty service). The total cost of living expenses, especially for servicemembers and veterans with dependents, can be considerably higher than this amount.

Callahan and Jarrat propose several solutions to improve postsecondary completion for this population. They suggest that institutions should more accurately determine which students are current or former servicemembers or veterans so institutions can help make those eligible for GI benefits aware of the financial opportunities. Such identification could also be used to pair servicemember or veteran students with servicemember or veteran administrators and faculty for guidance and mentorship.

Both the Million Records Project and Callahan and Jarrat’s article contribute to ongoing efforts to improve outcomes for active duty servicemembers and veterans. While the former has taken the first steps in pursuing empirically driven research on degree completion, the latter adds to our understanding of the environmental challenges faced by these individuals. By incorporating data with an awareness of the difficulties unique to student servicemembers or veterans, future efforts may help improve the educational outcomes of these men and women.


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