This report is part of a project on post-9/11 veterans in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program. The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting is pleased to provide a series of these stories, many of which have ties to Arizona, for our readers.
About this project:
“Back Home: The Challenges Facing Post-9/11 Veterans Returning from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

By Meg Wagner, Anthony Cave and Hannah Winston, News21

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has paid for nearly 1 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to go to school at a cost about $30 billion since 2009, but the federal government has yet to document how many of those students graduated, much less whether they stayed in school.

Neither the Department of Veterans Affairs nor other agencies maintains data that tracks retention and graduation rates among students under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Without that data, some worry those benefits could be in danger.

“We need to track these numbers to defend the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” said Michael Dakduk, executive director of the Student Veterans of America, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. “It’s an investment into our military. It’s an investment into our country.”

Every previous version of the GI Bill has faced elimination or reduction, Dakduk said. The World War II GI Bill expired after 12 years, and educational benefits during the Korean and Vietnam War eras were reduced as those conflicts ended.

“History proves to me that it’s a very, very real threat,” Dakduk said. “This is a benefit that could definitely be scaled back as involvement winds down overseas — unless we can prove a return on investment.”

INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC – (click above) Under the post-9/11 GI Bill, the government has distributed funds to more than 9,000 domestic universities, colleges and institutes since 2009. The University of Phoenix has accepted the most students – more than 28,000 between August 2009 and January 2013.

ARIZONA DATA:

  • Arizona State University led Arizona public schools with 2,583 trainees (students who have used Post-9/11 GI funds) since August 2009.
  • Excluding University of Phoenix (Online), Grand Canyon University led Arizona for-profit schools with 3,774 trainees since August 2009.
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott led Arizona nonprofit schools with 367 trainees since August 2009.

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, designed to provide an education to those who served after Sept. 10, 2001, approves benefits for use toward graduate and undergraduate degrees, as well as technical training, which includes everything from nursing and management to truck driving and acupuncture. Benefits have been disbursed to public and private nonprofit schools, as well as to private, for-profit universities and institutes, which collected more than $639 million by July 2010.

VA numbers also show that students in five states — California, Texas, Virginia, Florida and New York — have been granted the most GI Bill funds since August 2009: at least $7.8 billion, according to a News21 review. California, Texas, New York and Florida are the top four states with the most for the number of schools collecting GI Bill dollars, with Virginia ranking No. 7.

Spending on the Post-9/11 GI Bill is estimated to hit $42 billion next year, according to VA and White House projections.

In the first year of benefits payments, from August 2009 to July 2010, 1,968 public schools took in more than $696 million to educate 203,790 veterans, with spending averaging about $3,418 a student, according to VA data.

Private schools, New York University and George Washington University among them, received $416 million for teaching 49,470 veterans, about $8,409 a student.

For-profit schools collected nearly as much funding as public institutions, more than $639 million, for 76,746 veterans, or an average of $8,337 for each student.

For-profit institutions — the University of Phoenix, ITT Technical Institute and the Art Institutes, for example — have drawn particular scrutiny for collecting GI Bill money.

INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC – (click above) The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays in-state tuition and fees for veterans attending any public university. But in 29 states, veterans who come from out-of-state must pay the difference between in-state and sharply higher out-of-state tuition until they can establish residency. Twenty-one states, on the other hand, waive residency requirements and treat all veterans like in-state students.

ARIZONA DATA:

  • Arizona is one of 21 states that waive residency requirements and treat all veterans like in-state students.
  • There are 208 schools in Arizona.
  • Arizona has 65,416 trainees (students who have used Post-9/11 GI funds).
  • The state has received $513,813,139 of GI Bill money since 2009.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides for 36 months, about four academic years, of benefits.

For veterans attending a public school in a state where they have residency, benefits cover full tuition. For veterans enrolled at a public school outside of their home state, the GI Bill covers up to the cost of the most-expensive undergraduate public tuition in that state, leaving the student to pay the difference.

At private and for-profit schools, benefits cover up to $18,077.50 an academic year.

“There’s never been a more generous GI Bill,” said Rod Davis, director of the Texas A&M University System Veterans Support Office. “We’re in better shape than we’ve ever been before.”

In addition to tuition benefits, students receive a monthly housing allowance depending on their school’s location, from $768 in Alpena, Mich., to $3,257 in New York City. Allowances average between $1,000 and $1,400, while students whose schoolwork is exclusively online get $684 a month, according to the VA.

Without comprehensive data on student veteran outcomes, some schools have begun tracking their veteran enrollment. Arizona State University calculates veteran retention rates by tracking military students within larger universitywide surveys.

Joanna Sweatt, ASU’s military advocate, reported a 94 to 96 percent retention rate between fall 2012 and spring 2013 for first-year veterans at ASU. The numbers show that ASU veterans services, which include academic support and counseling, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill keep veterans in the classroom, she said.

“Someone’s inevitably going to ask, ‘Is that money being spent well?’” she said. “These numbers help show that it is.”

Read the full story here.