By Dani Molina
Since the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009, the United States has spent more than $53 billion to educate over 1.4 million military-connected students—veterans, active duty personnel and members of the reserve and National Guard, along with their dependents.
The higher education community has also invested in the postsecondary success of military-connected students: A 2012 report by ACE, AASCU, NASPA, and NAVPA found that 62 percent of surveyed colleges and universities provided programs and services to support veterans’ college access and success.
However, a large share of veterans and other military-connected students do not receive VA/DoD education benefits or other financial aid to help pay for college. What can be done to ensure they get the support they need and are entitled to?
Not All Veterans and Service Members Receive VA/DoD Education Benefits
A recently released report I co-authored with my research colleague, Andrew Morse from NASPA, reveals that significant differences exist among military-connected students’ receipt of VA/DoD benefits, even though earning money for college is often found as one of the main reasons for enlisting in the military. Our report analyzes U.S. Department of Education data from the 2011-12 academic year from a national sample of veterans, active duty, reservist and National Guard members.
We found that 68 percent of reservists received VA/DoD benefits compared to only 46 percent of National Guard members. Nearly 60 percent of veterans and 55 percent of active duty members received VA/DoD benefits.
The average total financial aid received also varied among military-connected students. Veterans received nearly $10,000 in total aid, while reservists, National Guard members, and students on active duty received about $8,500, $7,000, and $4,600 in average total aid, respectively.
Although some of the differences can be explained by time in service requirements and available benefits by one’s military status, it may be worthwhile to examine whether military-connected students have enough financial aid to help defray the costs of attending college. Even though many of these students may be eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, do the amounts they receive vary only because of their military service obligations? As veterans program administrators or school certifying officials, are we ensuring that student veterans and other military-connected students are aware of all financial aid opportunities, including grants, scholarships, and other gift aid opportunities (i.e., aid that does not need to be repaid)?
Veterans May Be Exhausting Education Benefits Too Soon (or Benefits May Not Be Enough)
There may be several reasons why veterans are not receiving their earned VA education benefits. As a former student veteran, I encountered many instances where fellow student veterans exhausted their GI Bill benefits too soon. Because so many of us begin our higher education pathway at community colleges, it’s always best to save limited GI Bill benefits until transferring to a four-year college or university, where the cost of attendance is significantly higher.
Another factor may be that veterans are not aware of other financial aid resources that need not be repaid, such as scholarships and grants. This has been a problem for most veterans that I met during my 10 years as a student veteran.
Finally, it’s possible that the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other VA or DoD education benefits are just not enough to cover a college education in this day and age. Given today’s workforce needs and the rising cost of attending college, we need to consider how to supplement the Post-9/11 GI Bill with other forms of financial aid or consider extending the benefit beyond the current 36-month limit.
Very few student veterans are handed the “playbook” on how higher education is structured and how they can pay for different college credentials or degrees. Luckily for me, I effectively used many different DoD and VA education benefits throughout my 10-year college career. And from conversations with other student veterans, there is still a clear need for information on available financial assistance, as well as how our nation’s system of higher education institutions operates and the range of degree options.
Ensure Student Veterans Have More Financial Aid Information
As the share of post-9/11 military-connected students increases in the coming years, and given the fact that service members and veterans have long been an integral part of higher education’s student demography, it is important to educate student veterans and other military-connected students about available financial aid options that will help defray the costs of a college degree. In doing so, we enable veterans and service members to both access a college or university they thought they could not afford and to complete their college education.
Veterans service or program officers can help fill in this knowledge gap by instituting formal processes to share information about institutional, state, federal and private financial aid. Most veterans resource offices and centers have information about veterans education benefits. But these offices should also work closely with their campus financial aid offices to help student veterans understand the full range of financial aid available to them and how to apply.
Below are a few examples of institutions that share information about scholarships and other financial aid for student veterans.
Texas A&M University
Veteran Services Office
The George Washington University
Office of Military and Veteran Student Services
California State University, Long Beach
Helpful Information to Support Student Veterans
U.S. Department of Education
Grants and Scholarships