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VA Education Benefits: VA Needs to Improve Program Management and Provide More Timely Information to Students

GAO-13-338 Published: May 22, 2013. Publicly Released: May 22, 2013.
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What GAO Found

Student veterans face many challenges pursuing higher education, and problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill create financial challenges that also affect veterans' academic success. Veterans already cope with challenges transitioning into college as nontraditional students (older or with family obligations) while they are readjusting to civilian life and potentially managing disabilities. However, veterans and school officials told GAO that delays in VA benefit payments create financial challenges for veterans that threaten their ability to pursue higher education. In fiscal year 2012, VA's average processing times for new Post-9/11 GI Bill applications (31 days) and benefit payments claims (17 days) were over a third higher than its performance targets. Processing times during the fall of 2012 were at times even longer. These delays led many veterans GAO spoke with to take on personal debt to cover their housing expenses or consider dropping out of school. VA has taken steps to reduce processing delays, and GAO previously made recommendations to address these issues. However, VA provides limited information about benefit processing timelines and payment policies to student veterans prior to enrollment, which can leave them unprepared to deal with these payment delays. In some cases, these delays also made it difficult for veterans to access other sources of federal grants and loans since some schools are reluctant to distribute this aid to students until after tuition and fee payments are received from VA.

VA provides limited direct support to veterans on campus, and schools are generally building their own veteran support services without any assistance from VA. VA has initiated the VetSuccess on Campus pilot, which provides veterans on 32 campuses with direct access to VA counselors who help them connect to services. VA also offers counseling and funding for academic tutoring to eligible student veterans. Some schools are developing services to meet the needs of these students, including creating new administrative offices to serve them. However, smaller schools have limited resources to devote to veteran services and may require different approaches to effectively meet veterans' needs. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has also sparked rapid growth in student veteran enrollments, and schools have reported concerns about the challenges of supporting this emerging population. VA recognizes the need to leverage partnerships with stakeholders to better support veterans, but has not sought opportunities to disseminate information about best practices for supporting veterans that would help schools more effectively build their own on campus services.

It is unclear the extent to which veterans are achieving successful academic outcomes, and VA lacks a plan for using student outcomes data from its new data collection efforts to improve its education programs. Current data on student veteran outcomes are outdated or incomplete. For example, existing studies from VA and the Department of Education (Education) do not capture the increase in beneficiaries under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. VA is coordinating with Education and the Department of Defense to develop additional outcome measures and has multiple efforts to collect new data on student veterans, including a study that will track Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries over the next 20 years. However, VA does not yet have a plan to use these data to improve program management. These data could provide VA with a tool for assessing the effectiveness of its education benefit programs in facilitating student veterans' academic success.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA provided nearly $10 billion in education benefits to almost 1 million veterans and beneficiaries in fiscal year 2011. The majority of these benefits were provided through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which in 2008 established what has since grown into VA's largest education program. GAO was asked to review VA's education programs. This report examines: (1) what challenges, if any, veterans face pursuing higher education; (2) how VA supports student veterans on campus; and (3) to what extent veterans are achieving successful academic outcomes and how VA uses data on student outcomes to improve its education benefit programs.

To address these topics, GAO reviewed existing government studies and scholarly research on veterans' educational challenges, services, and outcomes; reviewed VA's strategic planning documents; interviewed officials from VA, Education, higher education associations, and veteran service organizations; and conducted focus groups with student veterans and interviewed school officials at 11 postsecondary institutions.


GAO recommends that VA: (1) provide veterans with more information on payment timelines and policies; (2) work with schools to facilitate earlier access to other sources of federal financial aid; (3) promote opportunities to share best practices for serving student veterans; and (4) create a plan to use new data on student veteran outcomes to improve program management. VA agreed with GAO’s recommendations and noted a number of actions it is taking to address these issues.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs To improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other education benefit programs and help veterans achieve their education goals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should develop materials or processes to inform student veterans about education benefits before they enroll in school, including expected payment timelines, housing allowance policies, and other financial resources such as the availability of grants and loans provided by Education. For example, VA could provide veterans with current information on expected processing times when they submit their original applications for VA education benefits, and more clearly highlight in online and printed resources VA's housing allowance policies and the availability of federal grants and loans to help veterans financially prepare for school breaks.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has taken several steps to inform veterans about their education benefits. This includes redesigning the Transitional Assistance Program for servicemembers to improve the information session on education benefits, providing details about GI Bill housing allowances on the GI Bill website, and participating in information sessions and outreach to student veterans with the Department of Education. On May 2, 2013, VA also added a link on the GI Bill website to its benefit processing performance measures which provide veterans with up-to-date information on average claims processing times.
Department of Veterans Affairs To improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other education benefit programs and help veterans achieve their education goals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should work with postsecondary schools to identify the types of information that would help facilitate more timely access to other sources of federal financial aid during the VA benefit processing period.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has made significant improvements in addressing benefit processing delays for the Post-9/11 GI Bill that had previously hampered the ability of students to quickly access other federal sources of financial aid. In its 2014 Performance and Accountability Report, VA reported that average processing times were 17 days for new Post-9/11 GI Bill applications and 6 days for benefit payment claims, representing a 45 and 65 percent reduction from 2012, respectively. Due to these improvements in processing times, schools we spoke with no longer have to wait multiple weeks to receive benefit payments from VA for tuition and fees which in turn enables schools to disburse any other financial aid funds to students in a more timely manner.
Department of Veterans Affairs To improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other education benefit programs and help veterans achieve their education goals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should leverage the experience and best practices of those schools and organizations that are currently providing support services to student veterans, for example, by hosting an online forum or raising awareness of existing resources from higher education associations and veteran service organizations.
Closed – Implemented
VA held a webinar with school certifying officials on June 28, 2013 to share information about its education benefit programs. The question and answer section of this webinar allowed schools and VA to discuss best practices for providing services to veterans and key topics of interest. VA has posted a transcript of this webinar on its website along with additional tool for helping schools build support services, such as the VA Campus Toolkit and Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Students.
Department of Veterans Affairs To improve VA's administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other education benefit programs and help veterans achieve their education goals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should develop a plan for using new sources of data on student veteran outcomes as they become available to improve program management and help student veterans achieve their academic goals.
Closed – Implemented
In September 2014, VA finalized an implementation plan for collecting and using new data on student veteran outcomes. This included the selection of specific outcome measures it will track going forward, which include retention rates, transfer-out rates, and graduation/program completion rates. This plan includes details on VA's efforts to publish this data on the Department of Education's College Navigator website and VA's online School Comparison Tool. VA ultimately plans to use this data to analyze historical trends and inform program and legislative guidance.

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Best practicesBudget obligationsClaims processingCollege studentsData collectionDebtDisabilitiesHigher educationSchoolsSecondary educationStudent financial aidStudentsVeteransVeterans benefitsVeterans disability compensationVeterans educationGovernment delays