Veterans Use New GI Bill Largely at For-Profit and 2-Year Colleges

Thomas Slusser for The Chronicle

Lamonte W. Mills, an Air Force veteran, used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to return to Tidewater Community College and start working toward a law degree. The place "feels like home," he says. And "they thanked me for serving."
June 13, 2010

For-profit colleges and community colleges were the most popular choices of students who used benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill this past academic year, the first in which the aid was available. The attendance patterns were largely similar to those of students who recently used aid under the previous version of the GI Bill.

Advocates of the Post-9/11 bill, which was enacted in 2008, had said it could improve veterans' ability to afford four-year institutions because of its increased benefits and new allowances for housing and textbooks. But data from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that for-profit and community colleges continue to dominate the list of the top institutions where veterans use their education benefits.

Among the 15 institutions that enrolled more than 1,000 students who used the new GI Bill's benefits from October to May, seven were for-profits and five were community colleges. In 2007, nine of the top 15 under the previous Montgomery GI Bill, as it was called, were for-profits, and three were community colleges.

A total of 270,666 students used the new benefits in 2009-10. Veterans and college officials say cost, convenience, geography, and support systems were significant factors in veterans' college decisions.

The University of Phoenix, whose online-learning program has been particularly attractive to veterans, topped the list, enrolling more than 10,000 students who used the new benefits. Phoenix operates a military division with more than 1,000 employees who specifically assist and advise veterans. It also awarded 50 scholarships to veterans in the 2010 fiscal year, worth $4,000 each, and will increase the maximum amount to $7,000 for next year.

Lamonte W. Mills, a veteran who is a student at Tidewater Community College, in Virginia, says he returned to the college, which he attended in 2000, because of its low cost and welcoming environment. He felt at home there in part because of the large veteran population and because of the support veterans receive, from "the provost on down."

Tidewater, which has four campuses near the large naval base in Norfolk, enrolled 2,405 students who used Post-9/11 GI benefits in 2009-10, the fourth-highest total.

Mr. Mills, 29, served in the Air Force on active duty from 2007 to 2009. When he heard about the expanded GI Bill, he applied for early exit from active duty and is now a member of the Air Force Reserve.

Graduating from college was always a goal of his, he says, and his military experience helped him focus on a plan. Mr. Mills now has his sights set on earning a law degree.

"I was going to apply to various other colleges and universities, but I was led back to TCC," he says. "It feels like home. When I was gone for so long, I wasn't certain if anyone would remember me. But everyone did. They thanked me for serving."

Bigger Benefits

The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers benefits that weren't in the Montgomery GI Bill, an advantage that its sponsors hoped would make four-year colleges more accessible to veterans. Under the Montgomery bill, benefits are adjusted annually, on the basis of average undergraduate tuition. The new GI Bill gives veterans up to the full amount of tuition and fees at the most-expensive public college in their states. And it provides a monthly housing allowance and an annual stipend for textbooks.

The new bill also includes a "yellow ribbon" program, which seeks to help veterans attend private colleges, graduate schools, and out-of-state public institutions. The federal government matches the amount of financial aid pledged by participating colleges above the base educational benefits for tuition and fees provided in the new GI Bill. More than 700 colleges and universities participated in the program in the past academic year.

The Post-9/11 bill also makes it easier to transfer benefits to a spouse or child.

Israel De La Cruz, who is on active duty in the Army, transferred his benefits to his wife, Venetia. She is pursuing a bachelor of science in human-services management at the University of Phoenix.

"I wanted to take classes online so I could stay home with my kids," says Ms. De La Cruz, who lives with her husband and two children in Fort Lewis, Wash. "And we put our son's name on the benefits, too, so he'll be able to use them."

The programs of seven of the top 15 colleges enrolling recipients of GI Bill aid are largely online. And many of the 15 operate satellite campuses near military bases.

University of Maryland University College, which ranked third, enrolled more than 3,000 GI Bill recipients over the past academic year, on campuses near U.S. military bases in Europe and Asia, in Maryland, and online. It was one of 20 colleges to receive $100,000 grants last year from the American Council on Education and the Walmart Foundation to increase programs and services for veterans. Maryland has used the money to create an online classroom-orientation program and a campus orientation for veterans, as well as to conduct four open houses specifically for veterans.

"We were military-friendly before it became a marketing term," says John F. Jones Jr., the university's vice president for Department of Defense relations. "We've always been so proud of having a large military component among our student body, and the new GI Bill has allowed us to continue serving even more veterans."

Outreach by 4-Year Colleges

Although four-year public colleges are not enrolling as many veterans using GI Bill benefits as are some for-profit and community colleges, a number of them are also increasing efforts to do so, and to improve campus services for them.

Some institutions, such as San Diego State University and the University of Missouri at Columbia, have recently opened offices to provide veteran-specific services. Last month the University of Utah opened the National Center for Veterans Studies, a joint effort of its College of Law and College of Social and Behavioral Science that will conduct research, provide outreach and vocational training, and engage in nonpartisan advocacy for veterans.

As part of the center, the university also created a National Service Academy, which will tailor some courses to veterans' talents and experiences. Hiram E. Chodosh, dean of law at Utah, says veterans' drive to serve their country could be refocused to service in other areas, like health care and civil engineering.

"One of the ways we're trying to help veterans is by knowing we need veterans to help us," he says. "They represent an incredibly untapped resource of talent and training."

Some public four-year universities are seeing more success than others in enrolling veterans. Arizona State and Ohio State Universities, for example, enrolled 716 and 548 students, respectively, using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits in the past academic year.

Both universities were cited by the online 2010 Guide to Military Friendly Schools as being attractive to veterans because of their sheer size and their online programs. Both also offer scholarships specifically for veterans. Campus officials say they have seen an increase in the number of veterans and their family members using the Post-9/11 benefits compared with those in the older GI Bill.

Charlene P. Kamani, supervisor for veterans' benefits and certification at Arizona State, says it enrolled about 60 percent more veterans across its campuses this past year than in 2008-9. The new law, she says, "offers them a greater ability to come here."

Further Expansion Sought

The Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect less than a year ago, in August 2009, but a U.S. senator already wants to expand its benefits.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat and an Army veteran, introduced legislation last month that would make all members of the National Guard and Reserve programs eligible for the new GI Bill benefits. His proposal would allow veterans to receive aid for a wider array of educational programs, including vocational and on-the-job training, and would make it easier for them to qualify for the housing and textbook allowances.

The bill would also base benefits on a national average of tuition, instead of on the highest public-college tuition in each state.

"We are excited that there is again movement in making some legislative changes to the new GI Bill," says James Selbe, assistant vice president for lifelong learning at the American Council on Education.

While the bill's prospects are unclear, and its cost has not been estimated, the council continues to focus on ways to improve how colleges serve veterans. Following up on the $2-million in grants that the council and Walmart issued last year to 20 colleges, the council will identify colleges that used the money to create the best programs and will urge other colleges to adopt the most-effective practices.

"There's a pretty large-scale effort nationwide in building the capacity to serve veterans," Mr. Selbe says. "But there's still work to do within institutions to improve the veteran experience of transitioning from service to school."