When it comes to understanding the path through higher education for today’s service member, family member, or veteran, our community is largely in the dark. While the U.S. Department of Education tracks completion data on a macro level to answer questions about our nation’s graduation rates, there has been no such effort on behalf of students using U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) benefits, even though VA funds more than $11 billion in student programs each year. Most contend that this absence of tracking is simply due to data being scattered across different agencies and organizations that use their own data collection methods, or because schools are not reporting the data in a way that is useful, if at all.
Veteran and military family advocates have an opportunity to shape future conversations regarding academic success before our learning opportunities fall victim to ill-informed budget brokering. To prevent this, we must be the first with the facts.
To begin to address this, the advocacy organization Student Veterans of America (SVA), in conjunction with the National Student Clearinghouse and VA, recently released the results of the Million Records Project—a study designed to address some gaps in knowledge and ultimately inform the public and policymakers on how GI Bill benefits are working for our nation’s veterans. By looking at postsecondary outcomes of almost 1 million student veterans who used Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits between 2002 and 2010, researchers learned that:
- 51.7 percent of student veterans in the sample earned a postsecondary degree or certificate, although it takes them longer than it does traditional students to attain their degree.
- Student veterans tend to be older than traditional students and more often have families and jobs that they juggle with education.
- Some student veterans delay enrollment or interrupt their studies due to military obligations.
As some have noted, this study also demonstrates how little we know about the outcomes of people using GI Bill benefits. This makes it exceedingly difficult to make sure institutions of higher education are best serving those who served, and even more difficult to make educated decisions about education policies affecting veterans. SVA acknowledges that the initial results of the project are a first step in filling the gaps surrounding outcomes, and much more research is needed to learn about the student veteran’s journey through higher education.
But what about the rest of military family members?
Military families know that in a time when no budget item is safe from the chopping block, even the most sound argument is no match for tough spending negotiations. In this rare case—data are power. Military family advocates have the opportunity to shape and frame the conversation about educational support for our community before it becomes another politicized spectacle. Again, the key is to be first with the facts.
Research on military family postsecondary education has the potential to save one of the most long-term benefits of military service for our nation’s veterans and military families—education. The Million Records Project demonstrates that today’s veterans are earning college degrees or certifications, entering the workforce with the skills they need to succeed, and continuing to serve in meaningful ways. These data will be an important part of the continuing conversation about education benefits for veterans. We must demonstrate the same dedication to learning about our military families.
But military family advocates have even greater difficulties than veterans in establishing trends because data are even more scattered and unavailable. Outside of the government, with the power of the Freedom of Information Act, data must be collected from each of the military services, the National Guard in each of the states, the Reserve forces, and VA, to name a few. From inside the government, we know that it is possible for a federal agency to provide constantly updated, comprehensive, easy-to-understand data. VA has done this for years through its Monday Morning Workload Reports to help the public, lawmakers, and the media understand trends of the claims inventory on a weekly basis.
Let’s call on the institutions that support military families to be first with the facts. Military and defense leaders support programs like tuition assistance for service members, the Military Spouse Career Advancement Account program, the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, and the transferability of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. Yet it is impossible to tell what impact these programs are having. Let’s ask that the program offices that serve those who serve publish, aggregate, and update these numbers on a regular basis. Without knowing how many family members are using these benefits, how long it takes for them to finish their programs, and what kinds of programs they are studying, our advocacy is less effective.
Being first with the facts helps us know how our military families are doing in these programs—not only to learn how to improve their education and employment results, but also to keep the programs that are truly working safe from injudicious budget cuts, when programs with ambiguous outcomes are the first to go. We need the facts from the DoD and VA so that we too can have informed conversation about education benefits.