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Last month, the Student Veterans of America (SVA), together with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse, released a host of new data on veterans’ higher education outcomes. The Million Records Project report, published by SVA, made use of previously unavailable data to show that more than half of veterans in a large sample had graduated within the 10-year period. (For the full summary, check out our earlier write-up here.)

But for all the questions the SVA report answers, it raises at least as many more. There are a number of blind spots in the report about veterans’ paths through college, and their eventual outcomes. Future iterations of the Million Records Project may—and should—endeavor to answer some of these questions; without the answers, institutions of higher education, nonprofit groups, and veterans’ organizations will remain in the dark about how well higher education is serving our nation’s veterans.

Are veterans graduating?

The SVA report says 51.7 percent of the veterans in its sample attained a degree or credential. But that figure isn’t comparable to other graduation rates like those calculated by the Department of Education. That’s because instead of following a single cohort of students for multiple years, it identifies how many of the total sample—those who first used their Montgomery or Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits between 2002 and 2010, all cohorts included—graduated by 2010.

Not only does SVA’s approach mean that graduation rates cannot be compared to any one completion cohort constructed by the Department of Education, but the graduation results are likely overstated compared to the typical formula the Department uses. The average associate and bachelor’s degree graduates in the SVA sample took 5.1 and 6.3 years to complete, respectively. But many of these students would not be measured as graduates in the Education Department formula because they completed outside the 150 percent of expected time (for example, six years for a bachelor’s degree) that the Department of Education allots for inclusion in the graduation rate. (The Department does measure bachelor’s degree candidates to 200 percent of time—eight years—as well, so the average student veterans in the SVA report would qualify as graduating under that measure.) We don’t know from these data what the graduation rate is – but odds are good that less than one-half of the sample earned an associate, bachelor’s, or postgraduate degree within that window.

Are recent veterans faring differently than older vets?

Veterans using both the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill are included in the SVA sample. But those eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill served after September 10, 2001 – and they may be more likely to have been involved in combat or overseas operations. And they may face different challenges. The Washington Post recently published the results of a new survey that shows nearly a third of recent veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq face mental health challenges, which can affect their performance in school, work, and relationships.

Moreover, as the report points out, lots of veterans take unconventional paths through college—sometimes starting school later in life or leaving mid-year for one or more deployments before returning. There can be little doubt that more recent veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the increasing numbers of National Guard and Reservists who serve combat tours, are taking winding roads to graduation.

Since the sample includes a mix of Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bill veterans, it’s not clear from the SVA report how the added obstacles that more recent veterans may face are affecting student veterans’ academic progress. And we’re left wondering how—if at all—that affects their graduation rates.

Who is serving veterans well – and who isn’t?

The report calculates educational attainment rates for those in the sample broken out by institutional control—public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit. The for-profit figures seem surprisingly average, given media reports and a congressional investigation into some schools’ recruitment of student veterans. Those figures can probably be explained by chronic underrepresentation of for-profit colleges in the National Student Clearinghouse, which provided many of the data points. So are the real for-profit numbers worse than they seem? Or are the allegations about the for-profits’ recruiting practices misplaced?

A Data Roadblock to Answers

Unfortunately, the National Student Clearinghouse is unwilling or unable to provide the data necessary to answer these questions. That’s because the Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that helps institutions meet federal reporting requirements, serves the institutions above all other audiences. That means it will not publish data at the institutional level, especially if that information might make particular schools look bad – like veterans’ graduation rates by institution. But without producing the data at that level, bad actors can hide in the mass of others. Neither students nor policymakers can identify those schools for improvement – and they can’t know how to vote with their feet if they don’t know which schools will serve them well.
The Million Records Project is a massive undertaking and it provides crucially important information for policymakers seeking to understand the more than $11 billion poured into the Department of Veterans Affairs student programs annually. But the limitations of the questions it can answer and the difficulty involved in stitching together datasets from multiple agencies and companies show just how hard it is to get meaningful answers out of our current patchwork data system.

A national student unit record system like the one my colleague Amy Laitinen and I proposed in our recent report, College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark, could make better use of the data scattered across institutions and the government – and those reports could be used to help veterans avoid the pitfalls of institutions that won’t serve them well.