Student veterans face a host of challenging circumstances, from deployments to injury, that make earning degrees more difficult -- at least, that’s what we thought. The research on veterans’ outcomes is spotty, at best. Because the funds for veterans’ education benefits are distributed independently of other federal postsecondary education benefits, through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) instead of the Department of Education, and because VA has focused more on the disbursement of funds than its beneficiaries’ performance, there’s been little research to explore those students’ academic course and outcomes. That’s despite the more than $11 billion spent annually on veterans’ education and support for servicemembers and veterans that spans the entire political spectrum—a stunning dichotomy between how much lawmakers claim to care about veterans’ successful transitions and how little we know about them.
A new, first-of-its-kind report from the Student Veterans of America starts to answer some of those questions. The Million Records Project, whose new report was released today, gathered data from the Department of Veterans Affairs for 1 million recipients of the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills between 2002 and 2010 -- a sample that includes more than 1 in 5 of all such students during that time. Those records were matched with data from the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse, which is the only source of such student unit records in the country, to find information like whether veterans earn degrees, what level of education those students earned, and how long it took them to do so. The data offer critical –albeit limited—new insights into the lives and needs of veterans.
Need a refresher on servicemembers and veterans education benefits? Check out our background and analysis page here.
The full findings of the data analysis, which was conducted by Student Veterans of America, are well worth a read. The author found that of veterans who initially enrolled in a private nonprofit school, 63.8 percent earned a postsecondary degree (from any sector); for those who began in public schools, that number was 50.8 percent, and at proprietary schools, 44.9 percent. [Note that the for-profit figures are likely skewed—more about that below.] But the report also notes that most veterans initially choose to enroll in public institutions (79.2 percent), so the numbers of graduates at those schools are commensurately far greater.
Those graduation figures (a total 51.7 percent postsecondary attainment rate in the course of the study) look similar to the national average—56.1 percent in six years, according to a National Student Clearinghouse report for the 2007 cohort—but can’t be directly compared because of its design. Still, the new data show additional challenges for student veterans. Many veterans struggle to complete school on time. The median time-to-completion for veterans was 4 years for an associate’s degree, and 5 for a bachelor’s degree. And because the average time-to-degree for veterans was higher—5.1 years and 6.3 years, respectively—the data suggest that, at least on the margins, some students faced far more difficulty completing within the window of time most students take.
As the report notes, the data are far from comprehensive. All of the proprietary schools’ results are questionable, at best. The National Student Clearinghouse is a voluntary reporting system -- and for-profit colleges are chronically underrepresented in its rolls, despite that for-profit colleges often work to recruit veterans, largely because their federal dollars fall within a loophole to the federal 90/10 Rule. And those effects are amplified for this study, because in selecting the sample of 1 million records, VA intentionally excluded students at any of those schools that were known not to report to the Clearinghouse.
And that is just one of the inherent limitations to using the National Student Clearinghouse as a research organization. The Clearinghouse is voluntary, so its results are less reliable for certain subsets of schools (namely private for-profit schools) in which it doesn’t have “census-level” response/coverage. And because the Clearinghouse was built to assist institutions and lenders in tracking students’ enrollments, none of its institution-level reports are available publicly. That means that servicemembers, veterans, and policymakers don’t have the data they need to make good, evidence-based decisions about educational investments—despite that robust data exist showing which institutions serve veterans well and which serve them poorly.
The Million Records Project shows the inherent power of a student unit record system, of the kind banned by Congress in response to lobbying.
Despite the limitations, the Million Records Project partnership with the National Student Clearinghouse shows the inherent power of a student unit record system, of the kind banned by Congress in response to lobbying from the higher education lobby. (Read more about that in our new report, College Blackout: How the Higher Ed Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark.) If the Department of Education held those data, it could work to help student veterans find schools at which they might be more likely to succeed; work with institutions to improve their results for veterans and other student populations; and use data and research to drive important policy decisions. But as long as those industry lobbyists concerned with institutions’ bottom lines have their way, that essential information about students’ outcomes—and hundreds of billions of dollars invested by individuals and taxpayers—will remain trapped in a black box.