By Sarah E. Minnis, PhD and Shane P. Hammond, EdD
The Million Records Project report released in May by Student Veterans of America (SVA), in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse, provided a much-anticipated review of veterans’ pursuit of higher education. Using data not previously available, including some data from the National Student Clearinghouse, to examine the completion rates for roughly one million veterans attending college, this report offers a new look at where and how student veterans are succeeding in higher education.
What the report detailed, both in how the data was collected and the study results presented, provides a high-level overview of what is purported to be veterans’ progress in achieving education. It also highlights the need for ongoing efforts to promote research on veterans in higher education along with support veterans using their education benefits to earn a certificate, diploma, or degree.
The report states that 51.7 percent of veterans are completing the higher education goal for which they are using their benefits and taking 4-6 years to do so. The statistic is based on a sample of veterans in higher education using the Montgomery GI Bill, the Post 9/11 GI Bill, or both in the years 2002 to 2010 and drew comparisons between veterans and populations identified as similar such as non-traditional students and students with disabilities.
Because of the sample selected for examination, other populations of veterans were excluded – reservists using the Reserve Education Assistance Program or active duty service members using tuition assistance – which may have impacted the rate of completion. But that figure isn’t comparable to other graduation rates like those calculated by the Department of Education.
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 (McCann, 2014) Additionally, failure to factor in the greater dollar value of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which makes it a more desirable benefit, and uncontrollable delays in veterans’ time to completion due to deployments in addition to the resident versus non-resident rate of tuition difference could lend to discrepancies in the data. As well, making simple comparisons to other non-traditional students and those with non-military related disabilities leads the reader to an inaccurate picture of the veteran experience and potential to achieve in higher education. In all, based on flaws in how the data were collected and what the numbers do not tell us, the reader is left with more questions than answers regarding how veterans are faring as they pursue higher education.
The report sets out the review of literature in two frameworks: one highlighting the reasons veterans would not be expected to persist to completion by making comparisons to these other student populations without making significant note of the ways in which veterans are different from them, and another that assumes educational completion based on previous research data and historical comparisons.
In setting up the argument in this way the author has overlooked previous research on the current veteran experience in higher education and has failed to recognize key factors that may lead to their success or lack thereof. Veterans do experience higher education differently than their traditional-aged and non-traditional counterparts in school (Vacchi & Berger, 2014). And while they may have disabilities, seen or unseen, from their military experiences, veterans are unlike most others with disabilities on campus (Madaus, Miller II & Vance, 2009).
Data has not been collected in any sort of systematic way by any entity, which would allow an easy comparison between sources to draw conclusions about who veterans are and whether they are completing education. The term “veteran” is not defined by the entities collecting data, which the report cites, and there is no one source that is noted as being the best. In the report, the author recognizes this and the “contradictory results” as a challenge to the current research. 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. (McCann, 2014)
The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that helps institutions meet federal reporting requirements, serves the institutions above all other audiences. This means it will not publish data at the institutional level, meaning neither students nor policymakers can identify those schools for improvement, leaving more unanswered questions in the report (McCann, 2014).
In the end the Million Records Report offers statistics based partly on conjecture and wholly on data, which cannot be viewed as complete or accurate. The author makes mention at multiple points that outliers are likely influencing the numbers and concedes that numerous other veteran-related factors, such as stopping out of school to deploy, are contributing issues as well. Most significantly, the question we are left with is “why?”
We need to know why veterans are completing or not completing higher education and the factors influencing their persistence to completion or lack thereof. We need to know what may be impacting their time to achieve their education, when they are making decisions about their benefit use, and how they are selecting their academic paths. Mostly, however, we need to understand why veterans are attending higher education, why they are achieving, and why they are not doing so at a higher rate. We need to stop celebrating as 51.7 percent completion rate is not worthy of celebration, and is likely an underestimate.
We should begin asking what we can do to raise veteran graduation rates on our individual campuses, so that we will truly have the best-educated and most employable veteran workforce ever.
Sarah E. Minnis, PhD is the CEO and Principal Consultant at Anthology Consulting LLC. She has over 20 years of career and organization development experience with 8 years working specifically with veterans and the organizations educating and employing them. As a recognized expert in veterans’ career development, Sarah has published and presented nationally and internationally on her experiences and research with veterans. Through her ongoing work in veterans’ career development she has developed a program of support and education to help college and employment communities understand the value of the veterans they serve.
Dr. Shane Hammond is a demonstrated scholar-practitioner in higher education with diverse experience in student affairs administration and leadership. Currently serving on the graduate faculty in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Hammond has worked tirelessly to support the creation of model student veteran programs in the state of Massachusetts. His on-going research of student veterans in higher education provide empirical insight into the identity of student veterans who have experienced combat.
Cate, C.A. (2014). Million Records Project: Research from Student Veterans of America. Student Veterans of America, Washington, DC.
Madaus, J.W.; Miller II, W.K. & Vance, M.L. (2009). Veterans with disabilities in postsecondary education. In J.W. Madaus (Ed.), Journal of postsecondary education and disability: Veterans with disabilities (10-17). Huntersville, NC: AHEAD.
McCann, C (April 8, 2014). Million Records Project Raises as Many Questions as Answers. Ed Central. Retrieved from http://www.edcentral.org/million-records-project-raises-many-questions-answers/
Vacchi, D. & Berger, J. (2014). Student veterans in higher education. In M. Paulsen (Ed), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. 29). Netherlands: Springer