Debate over student veteran graduation rate rages on

Student veteran group hopes to disprove media reports about vet dropout rates, preserve funding for GI Bill

By John Sugden and Henry Kerali

As hundreds of thousands of young American veterans return home from war, many are taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to get a college education. But how many are actually graduating?

It depends who you ask.

Last October, David Wood of the Huffington Post reported that 88 percent of veteran college students will drop out before completing their first year. Wood, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his war reporting at the Huffington Post, was reportedly citing an obscure study from the Colorado Workforce Development Council, an organization affiliated with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The study is no longer available online, and veteran advocacy groups have been fighting to discredit it since Wood’s story was published.

One such advocacy group is Student Veterans of America. According to its website, “SVA’s mission is to provide military veterans with the resources, support, and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education and following graduation.”

Michael Dakduk, SVA’s executive director, sought to discredit recent media reports on the student veteran dropout rate during testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“These reports are unfounded,” he said. “There are no facts to them.”

The quest for a true graduation rate

In January, SVA announced a partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse, a research center for student outcomes. The trio plans to create a comprehensive database of student veterans and whether or not they are graduating. Their goal is to determine the true graduation rate for student veterans.

In the meantime, SVA is engaging in its own research on the topic. Led by Research Director Chris Cate, SVA released a preliminary study on graduation rates in early March. The study is based on the 2010 National Survey of Veterans and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America

Photo courtesy of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, said he worries misinformation about veteran dropout rates could be used to justify cuts to Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries.

Cate acknowledged that SVA was motivated to take swift action by the Huffington Post story.

“It really prompted us to move forward a little bit more aggressively than we possibly might have,” he said.

Based on the findings of the March study, Cate said SVA’s working hypothesis of the post-9/11 veteran graduation rate is around 60 percent. That figure is even higher than the national average of 54 percent.

When asked to explain the difference, Cate said it likely has to do with the effectiveness of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. He said the bill takes stress off of student veterans by paying some of their expenses and preventing the need for them to work their way through school.

Still, there’s reason to doubt such a bold hypothesis. Just 11 percent of the respondents to the National Survey of Veterans reported having served after September 2001. In addition, because the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect in 2009, neither dataset used in the study can accurately reflect its influence.

Cate acknowledges in the study’s conclusion that while the two sources analyzed provide a more accurate understanding of the completion rate than before, they are no substitute for the national database currently in the works.

Conflict of interest?

But can SVA’s report on veteran graduation rates be trusted?

After all, SVA is an advocacy group, and it is in the best interest of its advocates to show that the Post-9/11 GI Bill is having a positive influence on veterans.

In today’s fiscal climate, just about every government program could be put on the chopping block. Quoted in an article on SVA’s website, Dakduk spoke directly to this issue.

“Billions of taxpayer dollars have funded the education of over 800,000 Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries,” he said. “Untrue claims of high-dropout rates could be used as evidence for cutting the Post-9/11 GI Bill.”

Historically, Cate said, education benefits have been reduced following the conclusion of a conflict.

Cate said his goal is to show that there is a return on the investment.

“The hope is that showing the benefits for the veteran as well as the economic benefit to the greater U.S. economy that the Post-9/11 GI Bill will be around for longer than other wartime education benefits,” he said.

Despite SVA’s efforts to discredit Wood’s story through its own research, it seems clear that an accurate dropout rate figure will not be reached until the joint database is released next year.

Until then, the debate over dropout figures and the value of the Post-9/11 GI Bill is likely to continue.

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This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

Word Clouds From Veteran Survey

What did you miss the most about home?
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Why did you enlist?
Why did you enlist in the military.

From soldier to civilian - what problems did you face?
Challenge of transitioning to civilian life

What difficulties did you face upon returning to college?
Difficulties on returning to college

Word Cloud From Non-Veteran Survey

What challenges do vets face coming home? Non-vets

Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

- Did you kill anyone?
- Do you have PTSD?
- Did you see anybody die?

- Did you get shot at?

- Was it hot?

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