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To Combat Fraud, Colleges and Universities Must Report Student Veteran Outcome Data

Veterans continually bear the brunt of deceptive advertising and fraud from schools seeking to exploit them for their hard-earned GI Bill benefits.

I joined the Army at age 17 to earn educational benefits after losing my father, a Navy veteran, to suicide and my mother in a head-on collision car accident. Today, I am proudly an alumnus of two of the most prestigious universities in the country—Fordham University and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. I have successfully navigated the military-to-civilian transition, have a great job, and feel miles away from the foster care hearing I attended 11 years ago. The kindness of others, student veteran support organizations, and the GI Bill have blessed me with the opportunity to advance personally and professionally. 

Unfortunately, determining the education outcomes of other students like me is nearly impossible because the Higher Education Authorization Act—the single most important piece of higher education legislation—does not require institutions to comprehensively report student veteran data. Under HEA, participating aid-eligible institutions must report a plethora of information, from employment outcomes to student loan default and graduation rates disaggregated by race, gender, and aid status. These data are collected via surveys and generally published publicly to the Education Department’s Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System.

While the Education Department collects some student veteran data, it generally does not distinguish student veterans from traditional students. The Veterans Affairs Department collects and publishes some outcome data, such as retention, persistence and graduation rates. However, the data is incomplete because reporting is optional. For example, VA has veteran-specific retention and persistence rates for only 222 schools compared to the roughly 3,400 schools that reported the same metric for traditional students.

The lack of accurate student veteran performance data is clearly documented. In 2017, Student Veterans of America published groundbreaking research outlining the difficulties in “collecting, analyzing and interpreting student veteran academic outcomes due to poor collection methods, narrow inclusion criteria, and errors in identifying student veterans.” In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office published a report citing their struggles in differentiating GI Bill beneficiaries from active-duty military students. In 2020, the Government Accountability Office released a report declaring a need for more comprehensive performance data to evaluate programs designed to serve disadvantaged students, including veterans.

Student veterans continually bear the brunt of deceptive advertising and fraud from schools seeking to exploit them for their hard-earned GI Bill benefits. Regulations like the gainful employment rule helped curtail abuse by ensuring that student veterans are gainfully employed and financially able to repay their student loans after graduation. The rule required institutions to report outcome metrics such as student debt-to-income ratios and employment rates. It saved billions in taxpayer money wasted on poor-performing diploma mills producing useless degrees. Unfortunately, despite its overwhelming support by 34 of the largest veteran service organizations, the gainful employment rule was repealed in 2019.

Access to accurate student veteran performance data is the linchpin of protections like the gainful employment rule. Without it, advocates and researchers will be unable to ensure student veterans are not crippled with loan debt or identify bad-actor schools. This is a crucial step. Like 62% of student veterans, I am a first-generation college student. We do not have the privilege of calling our family for assistance or advice to navigate higher education because we are doing this for the first time.

The Education Department in June held the first of several hearings to gather public feedback to develop new regulations under HEA. When announcing the hearings, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said, “The Department of Education’s primary responsibility is to serve students and borrowers.” If so, then regulations under HEA should require colleges and universities to differentiate GI Bill beneficiaries from the traditional student population in all data reporting. Should data collection overlaps exist, the department should create data-sharing agreements to better consolidate and publish these data for easy access by researchers and advocates.

The deliberate identification of veterans in data reporting will increase transparency in how the government spends taxpayer dollars, ensure adequate protections for student veterans, and hold accountable the organizations that receive billions every year in GI Bill funding. We can measure the efficacy of on-campus student veteran support services and veteran serving programs. We can safeguard our student veterans, preserve the GI Bill’s legacy, and assist more students in climbing the academic and economic ladder.

With a price tag of roughly $12 billion a year, the Post 9/11 GI Bill is VA’s most expensive educational program, accounting for nearly 20% of all federal higher education spending. The American people deserve access to comprehensive student veteran outcome data, and the Education Department is uniquely positioned to provide it.

Wesley Wilson is a current student veteran at American University and a senior analyst at Grant Thornton Public Sector LLC. He is also an advocacy fellow with High Ground Veterans Advocacy and former Research Associate at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. The views expressed here are his own.