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The Post-9/11 GI Bill celebrates its fourth anniversary on Thursday, having paid a combined $30 billion for the education and training of about 1 million service members, veterans and family members.
The program, largely in law because of the efforts of a one-term senator who thought combat veterans deserved a free college education in return for their sacrifice, might be an unqualified success except for one small thing: The Veterans Affairs Department is unable to measure its success.
VA officials cannot say how many people have graduated from college or vocational schools as a result of the program pushed through Congress on the efforts of former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. It also cannot say how many veterans have found jobs as a result of the program.
However, VA is trying to get answers to those questions. Robert Worley, director of VA’s education service, said the ability to show graduation and employment rates for students who have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill could become a important issue if the program is targeted for cuts.
“This is why we are working so hard,” Worley said.
Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit group with chapters on 850 campuses, said the question isn’t just how many people have graduated using the GI Bill but also whether 36 months of benefits — enough for four years of college — is enough to complete a degree.
He noted that many veterans are not like traditional first-time students. Student veterans, he said, often begin college with some credits earned before they enter the military or from classes taken while they were in the service. They also are more likely not to be full-time students.
Curtis Coy, VA’s deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, said guides to help veterans select the best school to attend, including graduation and dropout rates, could be available by the end of the summer. However, the guides will use the schools’ success and failure rates for all students, not just veterans.
VA also hopes by the end of the summer to have a system in place for people using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to file online complaints about schools, Coy said.
“We have veterans who are returning to school this fall in record numbers,” he said.
After initial problems paying GI Bill benefits accurately and on time, the program is now almost entirely electronic and is resulting in prompt payments, Coy said, with payments coming in five to seven days.
GI Bill benefits are working so well that VA has been reassigning people who once worked on education benefits claims to work on disability claims.
Coy called the Post-9/11 GI Bill a “wonderful benefit, well-earned,” that he hoped would survive tightening federal budgets.
The 1 million beneficiaries show the program is “well used,” he said.
Dakduk, acknowledging Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill as a benefit aimed at returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, said he hopes it is “sustained over the long-term.”
As combat troops return to the U.S. and with Congress looking for places to cut spending, Dakduk said he is “concerned the window is closing” on the program.
VA spokesman Phil Budahn said the Post-9/11 GI Bill is modeled after the World War II GI Bill, that provided what was at the time “benefits previously unheard of in this country.”
After World War II and now with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the veterans’ benefits programs offer a college education “to those who otherwise might not be able to afford it,” Budahn said.