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Study: Just over half of GI Bill users earn degrees

Mar. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Nearly 64 percent of student veterans who started at private schools earned a degree. For public schools, the number was just under 51 percent; for for-profit schools it was just under 45 percent, according to a Student Veterans of America study. (Getty Images)
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A little more than half of veterans going to school on the GI Bill earned a degree or certificate, according to a study released March 24 by Student Veterans of America.

SVA’s Million Records Project also found that students who start their college educations at for-profit institutions have slightly lower chances of graduating than those who start at nonprofit colleges and universities.

However, those results could be skewed by students who start at one type of institution, such as a public university, and transfer to another, such as a for-profit. Also, the way that the data was compiled complicates efforts to draw comparisons between the success rates of vets and nonvets.

Still, the SVA study represents perhaps the most comprehensive look ever at the academic success rates of veterans in the post-9/11 generation and demonstrates that the taxpayer investment in veteran education is money well spent, SVA officials said.

The story of student veterans “is one of persistence, perseverance and success,” said SVA President and CEO Wayne Robinson. “As nontraditional students, veterans face unique challenges and often follow different paths to completion. It is clear, though, that veterans are persisting in their education.”

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has paid for the education of more than 1.1 million people, at a cost of over $39 billion, since it launched in August 2009, according to Curtis Coy, a deputy undersecretary with the Veterans Affairs Department.

Despite the substantial dollars involved, the federal government has done little to no tracking of how such students are doing. Instead, there have been widely varying estimates of student veteran graduation rates, as well as scores of anecdotes about for-profit institutions taking advantage of current and former service members.

The Million Records Project; a joint effort involving SVA, VA and the academic research organization National Student Clearinghouse is the first major effort to replace the conjecture with hard data.

The project examined the records of 788,915 student veterans who used either the Montgomery or Post-9/11 GI Bill from 2002 to 2010. Of those, 51.7 percent received a credential of some sort — from a quick technical certificate in auto mechanics to a graduate degree in astrophysics and everything in between — by June 2013.

That way of measuring student success varies widely from the standard method established by the Education Department. Those standard graduation rates look annually at how many students in a particular year’s starting class have graduated by 150 percent of the expected completion time: six years after enrolling for 4-year schools and three years after enrolling for 2-year schools.

In contrast, in the Million Records Project, a student who began pursuing a four-year degree in 2010 and remained on track to finish by 2014 would be counted negatively against the graduation rate. Yet the opposite would be true for a student who started pursuing a two-year associate degree in 2002 and didn’t finish until the middle of 2013.

The Education Department’s most recent available data shows that 55.7 percent of students who began attending 4-year schools in 2006 graduated by 2012, as did 33.3 percent of students who began attending 2-year schools in 2009.

Because veterans are nontraditional students — typically older and more likely to have family and work responsibilities than an 18-year-old freshman — SVA suggested a 1996 study of nontraditional students for comparison. That study found that 44.3 percent of such students had earned some type of degree or certificate within five years of starting school.

There is also some uncertainty about the Million Record Project’s findings on student success at for-profit, as opposed to nonprofit, schools.

The report found that 44.9 percent of students who began their studies at for-profit schools earned a degree or certificate. That number was 63.8 percent for students starting at private schools, and 50.8 percent for students starting at public schools.

But the study’s nonstandard definition of graduation, as well as its inability to account for students who transfer from one type of institution to another, make it difficult to draw conclusions from the information.

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