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Higher Education: VA Could Improve Support for Veterans Pursuing STEM Degrees

GAO-22-105326 Published: Sep 29, 2022. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 2022.
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Fast Facts

During the last 3 years, over 130,000 veterans used their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to pursue a bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). Veterans who run out of these benefits without getting a degree can apply for the Rogers STEM scholarship. But 63% of scholarship applicants were denied.

Veterans Affairs doesn't collect data to understand application denial trends, including race and sex disparities. Nor does VA offer clear information to veterans about their applications for the scholarship.

We recommended that VA address these issues to help veterans successfully obtain STEM degrees.

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What GAO Found

More than 130,000 veterans used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pursue a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) from school years 2019 through 2021. About 3,500 veterans also used the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship program to continue pursuing these degrees after exhausting their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. The majority of these veterans were pursuing degrees in computer sciences, health professions, or engineering (see figure).

STEM Degree Programs for Veterans Using Post-9/11 GI Bill or Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship, School Years 2018-19 through 2020-21

Fig High v01_105326

Student veterans pursuing STEM degrees can face several challenges obtaining a degree, according to GAO's interviews and literature search. Some of these challenges are not unique to student veterans, such as the rigor and sequence of STEM coursework and balancing academics with work and family responsibilities. Other challenges are more specific to veterans. While veterans bring strengths, such as discipline, some also have physical or mental conditions from their military service that can affect their academic progress, according to college officials GAO interviewed.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not clearly communicate with veterans about their Rogers STEM scholarship applications or collect and use data needed to understand application denial trends. Specifically:

  • Some of VA's letters to veterans lack clear information about their applications and how to proceed. These letters can create confusion for veterans about how to obtain the scholarship, according to GAO's analysis of the letters and interviews with veterans. Without clearer communication, veterans may not fully understand the program, whether they are eligible for it, or how to apply for funds.
  • GAO's analysis of VA data shows that the agency denied 63 percent of applications during the first 3 fiscal years of the program. This analysis also shows that VA denied African American or Black applicants and female applicants at higher rates than White and male applicants. However, VA does not collect the data it needs to understand why it denies more than half of all applicants. Further, VA has not yet conducted any analyses to understand the disparities in denial rates. Without additional data collection and analysis, VA is unable to take informed steps to better manage the program and address, as needed, these disparities.

Why GAO Did This Study

Veterans who received technical training in the military may be well-suited to pursuing degrees in STEM. To help pay for these degrees, veterans can use Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship. The scholarship provides up to 9 months of education benefits (not to exceed $30,000) to veterans who apply and qualify. Two laws included provisions for GAO to review how these programs support veterans pursuing STEM degrees.

This report examines (1) the extent to which veterans pursue STEM degrees using VA education benefits, (2) challenges these veterans face in obtaining a STEM degree, and (3) how VA administers the Rogers STEM scholarship. GAO analyzed VA administrative data and interviewed officials from VA and veterans service organizations, as well as officials and student veterans at selected colleges. GAO randomly selected five colleges for interviews from a list of 20 colleges with the highest numbers of Rogers STEM scholarship recipients. GAO also reviewed relevant literature and VA documents and processes.


GAO is making five recommendations, including that VA provide clear information to veterans about their applications for the Rogers STEM scholarship and analyze and address, as needed, disparities in application denial rates. VA concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should clarify in its outreach materials and on its webpage that the Rogers STEM scholarship does not include all the benefits provided by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
VA agreed with and implemented this recommendation. As of February 2023, VA updated its outreach materials and webpage to more accurately describe Rogers STEM scholarship benefits. Specifically, VA removed wording on its main web page for the scholarship. The website previously stated the scholarship allows veterans in high-demand fields to "extend their Post-9/11 GI Bill or Fry Scholarship benefits." The page now states that these individuals may be eligible for "added benefits." VA also changed similar language on other web pages and outreach materials describing the scholarship. These revisions will help ensure that veterans clearly understand the benefits provided by the scholarship and how they differ from the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should clearly communicate the status of the application, next steps, and timeframes for the final application decision in its interim letters to Rogers STEM scholarship applicants. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
VA agreed with this recommendation. As of February 2023, VA added language to the interim letters to address this recommendation. The revised letter now states that each application cycle closes at the end of the month and scholarship decisions are made seven days after the cycle closes. VA also added contact information for veterans to reach out to VA for further information prior to receiving the final decision. This revised letter will help ensure that veterans have clearer information about the status of their scholarship applications while waiting for a final decision.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should clearly communicate in its letter denying a Rogers STEM scholarship whether the applicant may be eligible in the future and how to proceed. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
VA revised its template denial letters to identify the specific reason VA denied the applicant and explain next steps a veteran can take based on the reason the application was denied. VA's revised template letter lists all eligibility criteria for the STEM scholarship and then references the specific criterion that the applicant did not meet along with an explanation for why the applicant did not meet it. For applicants who may be eligible in the future, VA added a new section called "What You Can Do" that instructs the applicant to resubmit their application once they meet all eligibility criteria.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should improve the application denial categories tracked by the agency to collect more precise data on the reasons for denying applications for the Rogers STEM scholarship. (Recommendation 4)
Open – Partially Addressed
VA agreed with this recommendation. The agency began manually tracking reasons veterans are denied the scholarship. These new tracking categories include whether an applicant is enrolled in a graduate program, had not earned enough credit hours, or is a dependent using transferred Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. In February 2023, VA reported that it will implement an automatic system for tracking the more detailed denial reasons in fiscal year 2024. To fully address this recommendation, VA should provide evidence of the automatic tracking system once it is in place.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should develop a plan to analyze the Rogers STEM scholarship application data on a continual basis and address, as needed, identified disparities in denial rates by race or sex. (Recommendation 5)
In June 2023, VA reviewed the denial reasons for a sample of denied applications in response to this recommendation and concluded that most applicants, regardless of race or gender, were denied because they were not enrolled in an eligible STEM program. However, VA's analysis was limited and did not provide data that was responsive to the recommendation. For example, the analysis did not look at denial rates for applicants of different races and sexes and instead identified the most common denial reason for applicants by race (but not by sex). In addition, VA's analysis did not include any information on confidence intervals to determine if any differences between demographic groups were statistically significant. VA also noted that it will continue to track denied applicants including their race and gender, but it did not include a plan to analyze the data on a continual basis. In its report, VA stated that applicants are not judged based on any criteria other than eligibility, noting that the only personal data present on the application is name, address, sex, social security number and service information. Because applications are processed without knowing the individual's race or ethnicity, VA concluded that any disparities perceived or otherwise, during the eligibility process are based solely on eligibility criteria. However, it is possible that some elements in the application review process could be somewhat subjective. Further, while race may not be included on the application, an individual's name in some cases can provide information about their racial background, which can raise the possibility of unconscious bias in processing applications. Given the existing disparities in denial rates by race and sex, we recommended that VA conduct further analyses to better understand the underlying causes of these disparities. For example, VA could review whether there are age, program, or service branch differences between demographic groups that might explain some or all of the existing disparities in denial rates (e.g., are female applicants more likely to enroll in education programs where the STEM eligibility is more subjective). Another possible option for VA would be to conduct a regression analysis to determine if race or sex are significant factors in whether an application is approved or denied. To address this recommendation, VA should develop a plan with more responsive analyses to understand the current denial disparities; analyze them on a continual basis; and document any actions taken to address identified disparities.

Full Report

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