Counting student veterans, finally

Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network
U.S. military veterans wait to meet potential employers at a job fair on the campus of Rutgers University in March 2012.  (Photo by John Moore | Getty Images)

U.S. military veterans wait to meet potential employers at a job fair on the campus of Rutgers University in March 2012. (Photo by John Moore | Getty Images)

In 2008, Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The legislation represented perhaps the biggest expansion of education benefits to returning service members since the original GI Bill in the 1940s, and it was – and continues to be – lauded by veterans and their advocates.

More than 710,000 veterans and their family members have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to access higher education as of March 2012 according to the White House, at a cost of $17.5 billion.

But is that investment paying off?

The truth is, nearly 5 years after the new GI Bill went into effect, there’s no authoritative data on how the veterans who have used its benefits have fared once they started taking advantage of the benefits — or if they’re even graduating. Estimates of student veteran dropout rates have ranged wildly. In our reporting, we’ve come across veterans who say their military training has given them a leg up in the classroom, but we’ve also talked to some who say the transition back to school and civilian life has left them reeling.

On the one hand, there’s My Tran, an Air Force veteran and sophomore at California State University, East Bay, who told us, “I am doing great in school. I have not failed any of my classes nor have I dropped any. My [military] experience is a major factor in my mentality and work ethics.”

On the other hand, there’s Luke Bohanan, an Army veteran and graduate student at the University of California, Davis. Bohanan says he struggles with PTSD, anxiety and “social troubles while at school due to culture clashes of my more serious military background and the laid back college life.”

Which of these student veterans is typical? No one knows.

Hopefully, that’s about to change. This month, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced plans to partner with Student Veterans of America and the National Student Clearinghouse to launch the nation’s very first comprehensive study to track veterans’ graduation rates. For the first time, we should get a clear picture of how veterans are doing in America’s institutions of higher education.

Organizers of the study don’t expect to have results until the end of 2013, but Michael Dakduk, SVA’s executive director, says he considers the effort to be the most important initiative since the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

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Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.