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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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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)
Open
VA agreed with this recommendation and stated it would review its outreach materials. We will monitor VA's progress on this effort.
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)
Open
VA agreed with this recommendation and said it would, among other things, review its outreach materials and update its letters to applicants. We will monitor VA's progress on these efforts.
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)
Open
VA agreed with this recommendation and said it would update its letters to applicants, among other things. We will monitor VA's progress on this effort.
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
VA agreed with this recommendation. Agency officials said VA would, among other things, undertake a review of its denial rates. We will monitor VA's progress on this effort.
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)
Open
VA agreed with this recommendation. Agency officials said VA would, among other things, undertake a review of its denial rates. We will monitor VA's progress on this effort.

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