After years of growth, the number of people using the Post-9/11 GI Bill has now fallen substantially for each of the past two fiscal years, federal data indicates.

About 54,000 fewer people used the GI Bill in fiscal 2018 – a 7 percent decline from fiscal 2017, which was itself down about 7 percent from fiscal 2016’s GI Bill enrollment total, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Officials from veterans service organizations and some of the schools that enroll the greatest numbers of GI Bill users said they’re not overly concerned about the falling GI Bill usage – at least not yet.

“It’s something that we just ought to watch,” said Keith Hauk, an associate vice president at University of Maryland Global Campus, a public institution formerly called University of Maryland University College.

“It’s a little bit too early, after only two years of watching this unfold, [to say] that it’s time to be alarmed, because I don’t think it is.”

Experts offered several possible explanations for the declining enrollments, including more vets earning degrees, GI Bill rules that could be discouraging vets from using the benefit and the strong national economy.

Meanwhile, public universities continued to account for the majority of GI Bill students. About 54 percent of students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill attended public universities in fiscal 2018, while 24 percent went to private schools and 22 percent to for-profit institutions, data indicates.

“A lot more of the public and the not-for-profit private [schools] are offering distance education now,” said James Schmeling, executive vice president of Student Veterans of America.

John Kamin, an assistant director with the American Legion, agreed and noted that “the idea of a global campus is, at this point, pretty popular” among public and private nonprofit schools. This is likely reducing the proportion of vets attending for-profit schools, which historically offered more distance learning options than public and private universities.

“I think we’re seeing a bellwether for things to come,” Kamin said.

DeVry University, a controversial for-profit school that remains a very popular destination for GI Bill users, said it has been affected by this trend.

“There’s been more competition with other institutions, particularly … nonprofit colleges and universities,” said Barbara Bickett, DeVry’s director of regulatory affairs.

For years, the for-profit University of Phoenix has enrolled more GI Bill users than any other institution – but it has seen plummeting GI Bill enrollment recently. That trend continued in fiscal 2018, when the school shed more than 5,940 Post-9/11 GI Bill students – about 21 percent -- dropping to 22,428 such students.

The school declined to answer questions about its falling GI Bill enrollment, instead sending Military Times a statement that read, in part: “University of Phoenix is designed for the non-traditional adult learner and so often fits the needs of military students who want flexibility, career-focused programs and dedicated support.”

If Phoenix’s enrollment losses continue, the school may soon lose its designation as the top destination for Post-9/11 GI Bill users.

The University System of Maryland, thanks primarily to its distance education campus, is nipping at Phoenix’s heels, with 18,429 GI Bill students in fiscal 2018, 4,000 students shy of the top spot.

University of Maryland Global Campus’ Hauk said his school isn’t focused on which institution attracts the most GI Bill users but instead on how to best educate and support its students. Hauk’s school lost about 3 percent of its GI Bill enrollment in fiscal 2018, but he said that appears to be turning around.

“We’re seeing growth so far in this fiscal year, in terms of the number of new student veterans,” he said.

The recent overall drops in GI Bill usage in fiscal 2018, among all universities, mirror a similar trend affecting military tuition assistance, which saw usage rates decline 6 percent from fiscal 2016 to 2017 and then go down another 2.5 percent from fiscal 2017 to 2018.

The 7 percent declines charted in fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2018 for the Post-9/11 GI Bill were calculated by adding all schools’ GI Bill populations and comparing year-on-year changes. This calculation method can sometimes double-count students if they, for example, attend more than one institution during the fiscal year. In previous years, the Veterans Affairs Department provided separate data that avoided such duplication, but VA was unable to do so for fiscal 2018 data by press time. VA also did not respond to interview requests to discuss declining GI Bill usage by press time.

Regardless, the downward trend in Post-9/11 GI Bill usage is clear – and sharp. In addition to the enrollment losses, the amount of money spent of GI Bill benefits decreased by nearly $287 million in fiscal 2018 to about $4.6 billion, a 5.9 percent drop. Officials offered a variety of theories to explain the falling numbers.

“A reduction in beneficiaries may indicate more veterans successfully complete degrees and are moving into the workforce,” said John Aldrich, a vice president at the country’s fourth most popular GI Bill school, American Military University, a for-profit institution also known as American Public Education Inc.

Aldrich said his school has graduated more than 3,000 GI Bill users in each of the past three years.

Another possible explanation that Aldrich offered: Students may be turning away from the GI Bill because it shrinks their housing stipends if they attend school entirely online. The Post-9/11 GI Bill gives online students only half of the national average housing stipend that in-person students receive.

“They really are forced to make a decision between convenience and flexibility, versus maximizing the amount of housing allowance they receive each month,” Aldrich said. “They may just say, you know, the heck with it.”

Meanwhile, Hauk noted that recent improvements to the Post-9/11 GI Bill may actually be resulting in fewer students going to school right now. The Forever GI Bill, signed into law in August 2017, allowed anyone who left the military after January 2013 to use the GI Bill at any point in the future. Previously, all benefits had to be used within 15 years of separation.

“I think it’s only natural to see that usage rates are going to decline” with the removal of that time limit, Hauk said. “They’ve got the rest of their life to use the benefit.”

In addition, Schmeling, of Student Veterans of America, pointed to a common higher education trend: More people go to college to improve their job prospects in bad economies, while fewer go to school when the economy is strong. That may also explain some of the decrease in GI Bill use, he said.

“The economy has continued to improve,” he said. “There is labor demand and veterans are highly skilled, so there might be fewer going to college because they don’t feel they need to.”

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