The Fight to Improve Access to Higher Education for Military VeteransD. Wayne Robinson | President and Chief Executive Officer, Student Veterans of America
The following email Q&A is with D. Wayne Robinson, president and CEO of Student Veterans of America (SVA). Robinson served in the U.S. Army and rose to the top of the enlisted ranks as a Command Sergeant Major. During his career he held many leadership positions in Artillery, Special Operations and Recruiting, and graduated from every enlisted leadership course offered by the Army. Robinson is a graduate of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. In this interview, he discusses student loan debt and finances from the veteran student’s perspective and shares his thoughts on strategies that can be put into place to increase postsecondary access for veterans.
1. Why is student loan debt a concern for veteran students given their access to GI Bill funding?
There’s a widespread misconception that veterans have a “free ticket” to a post-secondary degree and as such they don’t wrestle with the burden of student debt. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite the availability of education benefits to those who’ve courageously served and sacrificed for our nation, there’s frequently a large gap between GI Bill benefits and the real costs of getting an education.
Case in point: veterans who attend a private institution or go to school out-of-state receive a GI Bill benefit capped at roughly $18,000; but researchers note that in the 2013-2014 academic year, the average cost of tuition and fees was $30,094 at private institutions and $22,203 for out-of-state residents attending public colleges. That’s a substantial disparity.
It’s also critically important to recognize that student veterans are the quintessential non-traditional student. They’re typically older and often have a young family to provide for. That means added financial responsibilities. On top of that, many are coping with adjustment challenges and health issues stemming from their service, and some are called away to fulfill ongoing military obligations. These complex circumstances can make it very difficult to obtain a credential without incurring significant debt.
In addition, a number of student veterans have been the targets of predatory recruiting practices by schools more interested in the monetary benefits of the GI Bill than in educating veterans. Lost time at these institutions is not replaced and can lead to massive debt.
That’s why student veterans need ready access to resources that help them make informed choices about their schooling options. The VA’s GI Bill Comparison Tool is a great resource, as are SVA’s 1,000+ chapters, which always have an open door for veterans seeking guidance.
2. How does the available funding affect the postsecondary pathway decision-making process for veterans?
Available financial support is a major part of the decision-making process for student veterans. Understandably, they want to get the most out of their GI Bill benefits. They want it to be a stepping stone to a good career, a family-supporting wage, and a means to better serve and contribute to their communities. So when they see that their benefits won’t cover the costs of a specific school or degree program, it comes as no surprise that they often look elsewhere.
Here’s the larger obstacle: employers are searching for skilled workers with advanced degrees in science, technology and engineering (degrees that typically take more than four years to complete), but the maximum GI Bill benefit typically only covers four years of school. So we have a situation where not only are student veterans effectively disincentivized from making best use of their education benefits, but our nation is foregoing the opportunity to meet evolving workforce needs and boost our long-term competitive edge.
We strongly believe that there is a variety of measures on hand to address this issue, and we’re actively working with our partners in government, non-profit and private organizations to implement innovative solutions.
3. What kinds of changes can be made at the institutional level to support veteran access and debt-free degree completion?
There are a number of things that educational institutions can do to ease the transition and help student veterans graduate debt-free. The release of the Joint Service Transcript makes it easier than ever for veterans to gain recognition for their past military experience and training, either directly as academic credits or placement into more advanced classes.
Many schools can take a more active approach to translating past military experiences into academic credit. In specific, they can implement prior learning assessment policies and procedures, such as those outlined in the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Guide to Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Services. These processes not only award due credit for prior learning, but they enable student veterans to complete a degree program quicker—and without repeating introductory-level courses and wasting valuable benefits. Veterans then have the ability to pursue advanced degrees typically out of reach because of GI Bill time limitations, and they’re more likely to graduate without massive loan debt.
Beyond recognizing military learning, institutions can put six strategies into place:
- Implement priority registration for veterans
- Establish veteran-specific orientation workshops for new enrollees
- Educate faculty and staff in military cultural competency
- Leverage tutoring programs
- Support the creation of student veteran groups
- Designate veteran coordinators trained to assist veterans with benefits navigation, employment, and referrals.
4. Are there any changes that can be made through legislative action to achieve greater access to higher education for veterans?
While there are a multitude of opportunities to be seized, I want to highlight two specific items where lawmakers at both the state and federal level can make a big difference.
The first issue relates to our ongoing battle to bring in-state tuition to student veterans throughout the country. Due to the transient nature of military service, many returning veterans face difficulties re-establishing connections and identifying where they want to live and go to school. For many, it can take over a year or longer. During this time, many often enroll in school as an out-of-state resident, which is substantially more expensive since the Post-9/11 GI Bill only covers tuition and fees up to the in-state rate. This can result in thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs and/or significant debt.
Less than half our states currently allow veterans to receive in-state tuition rates. See our In-State Tuition Map. We at SVA are actively working with our partners at The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to advocate for in-state tuition for our veterans.
Second, we need to support veterans with the costs of academic programs that take added time (beyond four years). As noted earlier, our economy’s evolving labor needs call for more workers with advanced degrees and technical skills. As such, there would be a tremendous return on investment to extend GI Bill benefits to those veterans working to obtain credentials in high-demand fields. Not only would this change benefit individual veterans and their families, but it would also enhance the long-term economic standing of our nation.
We are making a concerted effort to advocate for these forward-looking proposals, and we greatly look forward to continuing these discussions with lawmakers, stakeholder groups, and of course, student veterans.
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 The College Board, “Trends in College Pricing 2013,” The College Board, 2013, retrieved on June 1, 2014, http://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/college-pricing-2013-full-report.pdf