Veterans are earning degrees at rates comparable to their civilian counterparts, according to a report released this week by Student Veterans for America (SVA). The report estimates that 51.7 percent of veterans are completing postsecondary education within six years, as compared with 56.1 percent of traditional students. Until recently, data on how veterans progress through higher education has been largely unknown because of breaks in education due to deployments and other military commitments.
“Quite frankly, I think for many of us it was surprising, given the general rhetoric out there on veterans in general,” said William Hubbard, SVA spokesman. “You hear a lot that veterans have PTSD or service disabilities. Usually the prevailing paradigm is that veterans aren't doing well and need a helping hand.”
The report is the first to look at completion rates of those who used veterans’ education benefits, specifically beneficiaries of the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill, an updated version of the Montgomery GI Bill, provides veterans with funds to pursue higher education for up to 36 months. Eligibility and funding amounts vary based on the amount of time spent in service. Since its inception in 2009, the Post-9/11 bill — along with the remaining funds from the Montgomery bill — has provided veterans with $34 billion.
“We wanted to be able to say that this is what Americans are getting for their investment in higher education,” Hubbard said.
The SVA found that most individuals pursuing two- and four-year degrees were graduating with their peers, and those who weren’t able to complete in two or four years continued schooling and graduated later.
Traditionally, completion rates are measured by looking at students who completed their degrees within three years for associate’s degrees and six years for bachelor’s degrees. But with veterans, because their schooling can sometimes be broken up by deployments, traditional methods might not accurately assess their success in school.
Kiersten Downs, who was in the New York Air National Guard as an undergraduate, was deployed to Iraq for 90 days during her junior year. For her, “the stars lined up” because she had to miss only five weeks of classes, since a majority of her deployment fell between semesters. Downs was able to earn her degree without pushing back her graduation date. But she knows of many students who were not as lucky.
“When you get deployed, you have very little notice. You might have two weeks or one week,” Downs said. “People forget these other circumstances we have to deal with in our lives. We're always juggling eight different hats. We can't just go to college.”
Alexandria Walton Radford, who did not work on the SVA report, has authored reports for the American Council on Education and the National Center for Education Statistics on the new GI bill and what was known about military students in postsecondary education prior to the implementation of the new bill. Radford praised the SVA for exploring how veterans are doing in higher education.
“It's definitely important to be investigating and looking into how our military students are faring in postsecondary education to see if there are differences in persistence and attainment and try to identify factors that might be contributing to any differences in attainment so that policies can be developed to help them,” she said.