September ScoutInsight Monthly Spotlight: Student Veterans in Higher Education
September 24, 2019 – by Dr. Kiersten Downs, Research Director, ScoutInsight and Céilí Peake, Research and Marketing Intern, ScoutInsight
The last couple of years have resulted in important advancements to veteran higher education legislation, including passage of the landmark Forever GI Bill, streamlining student loan forgiveness for 100% service-connected disabled veterans, and a proposed amendment to close the 90-10 loophole that for-profit schools use to unethically target military veterans while increasing their profits. As students across the country returned to school en masse, ScoutInsight is taking an in-depth look at veterans in higher education.
The G.I. Bill was implemented in 1944 to aid veterans in their transition from military service after returning home from the Second World War. As a result, this path towards affordable college education flooded American universities with student veterans. By 1947, veterans made up half of all college admissions, and over 2 million veterans used the bill’s educational benefits to obtain a college degree. Far from being obsolete, the G.I. Bill continues to serve veterans with educational opportunities. A study spearheaded by Student Veterans of America called NVEST found that student veterans using educational benefits of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill are “successful” in their postsecondary education at a rate of over 70%, measured by rates of enrollment as well as degree completion. Additionally, despite interruptions in the course of earning a degree, student veterans are “persistent post-secondary completers”, setting them up for career success across sectors after college. In addition to succeeding in degree completion, over 46% of current student veterans work full or part time while in school making them an important talent pool for companies to consider while recruiting.
Even with tuition costs waived under the Post 9-11 GI Bill, veterans are critically underrepresented at the nation’s top universities. The Hechinger Report reveals that student veterans total under 1% of undergraduates at America’s most elite colleges, and goes on to note that the military has done little to promote these institutions as an option for student veterans. Columbia University, for example, is reported to have just 443 veterans enrolled–more than half the total number of veterans attending the country’s 36 most elite colleges. Michael Kotlikoff, the provost of Cornell University, wrote last April that the “near-absence” of student veterans at highly selective universities “is a great loss” as they are deserving of opportunities to “discover their potential” at the same institutions as non-service members. Kotlikoff explains that student veterans have specified perceptions of veterans’ inability to be successful at elite universities as a deterrent to even attempting attendance. Furthermore, these universities, which often encounter problems with diversity standards, have struggled to handle veterans’ applications, signifying widespread institutional barriers even if they are unintentional.
The challenges student veterans face with higher education aren’t unique to the nation’s most elite institutions. Stereotypes of student veterans are partially to blame for this. Kent Syverud, the president of Syracuse University, wrote that leaders of top institutions perceive student veterans as unable to succeed in higher education because the institutions are “too academically difficult,” and they are uninterested in “the traditional liberal arts college curriculum.” A panel made up of student veterans as well as representatives from universities spoke on the issue at the American Council on Education’s 2019 conference; they corroborated these points, and added that many student veterans have internalized these harmful perceptions about their own abilities. The panel also noted that the infrastructure of most universities is designed around the traditional path of 4 years of undergraduate study directly following high school graduation. This poses challenges to student veterans’ successful transition to higher education as colleges are unprepared to handle their unique circumstances, including transfer credits and use of the Veterans Affairs benefits process.
A study of the challenges faced by student veterans enrolled at community colleges found that the cultural shift from the military to a civilian academic environment posed particular difficulties; “student veterans…are moving from a directed and structured culture to an open, free, and self-directed culture” of a college unable to meet the unique needs of this demographic. These factors make the transition from the military to higher education unnecessarily difficult for veterans, and may altogether deter many from the pursuit of higher education.
Many veterans’ advocacy groups are working to eliminate these institutional barriers. Student Veterans of America have worked for over a decade to “provide programs, resources, and support” to student veterans inadequately served by their universities, and lobbies in support of legislation that aids veterans on the path to higher education. The Veterans Education Success lobbies for similar issues in addition to bringing the voices of student veterans to the national stage. While veterans’ groups continue to push for protection of the educational rights and benefits of service members, legislative actions have also been taken.
President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to “develop an expedited process” to eliminate disabled veterans’ student debt. While the Higher Education Opportunity Act formally cancelled student debt for this population, this new measure is expected to remove administrative barriers that prevent disabled veterans from applying for debt elimination. Additionally, earlier this month a federal court ruled that veterans are permitted to access benefits of both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 G.I. Bills as long as payouts do not occur simultaneously–in practice, this decision means that veterans may be eligible for another year of tuition assistance when pursuing higher education.
While these particular legislative actions have benefited service members, most veterans’ advocacy groups are united against the 90-10 rule, a part of the Higher Education Act stipulating that the maximum amount of revenue for-profit educational institutions can claim from federal student aid is 90% of total profit. It contains what’s called a “veterans’ loophole” in that the cap doesn’t include “federal tuition benefits for veterans”, including G.I. Bill educational benefits. This loophole has incentivized for-profit universities to aggressively recruit veterans, but if the rule becomes more stringent as some Congressional representatives have proposed, such universities may respond by enrolling far fewer veterans if not being forced to close due to lack of revenue.
Maj. Chris Davis of the U.S. Marine Corps pointed out that “predatory” for-profit schools specifically recruit the veteran population to exploit their educational benefits, and the loophole should be closed to protect veterans. Popular opinion among Veterans’ groups is that the rule hurts service members’ ability to attend the schools they choose. Ultimately, for-profit or not, the universities that serve veterans the best will attract large numbers of veterans. Closing the 90-10 loophole, as stated by The Veterans Education Project, will “provide meaningful accountability” at institutions student veterans enroll at. It will protect this demographic while allowing them freedom in choosing universities they choose to attend. The Higher Education Act will continue to be debated in Congress with bipartisan support for reauthorization, and the engagement of veterans’ groups with this effort inspires hope that the outcome will be the best solution for service members.
Even with significant barriers to higher education, student veterans are succeeding at high levels. Student Veterans of America’s Million Records Project found that a majority of student veterans in their sample group earned a postsecondary degree despite the unique challenges they face, and almost 90% of those who graduated from their degree programs did so with a “degree at the associate level or higher.” The resiliency, determination, and dedication of student veterans is clearly not to be underestimated.
Further research should be conducted on how effectively the G.I. Bill aids student veterans who require more than 4 years to complete a degree, and how student veterans’ degree path is impacted by the rate of student debt they accumulate. As our military and veteran community continues to grow increasingly diverse, so too, does our student veteran community. As stated by Lindsay Church, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Minority Veterans of America, “Minority and under-represented student veterans often have unique and complex needs that require innovative solutions to better address the inequities they continue to face.” Future research, she says, should be focused on better understanding these experiences and creating nuanced solutions to address the greatest challenges facing minority veterans.
Céilí Peake, Research and Marketing Intern supporting ScoutInsight, the market research division of ScoutComms. Céilí is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics at George Mason University.
Kiersten Downs, PhD, Research Director and Program Lead for ScoutInsight, the market research division of ScoutComms.
Dr. Downs is an Air Force Veteran and Applied Anthropologist with over a decade of experience in research and managing projects that focus on Veteran policy, transition and reintegration, suicide prevention, military sexual trauma, and employment needs.