Higher Education: VA Could Improve Support for Veterans Pursuing STEM Degrees
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.
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
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
|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)||
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)||
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)||
VA agreed with this recommendation. As of February 2023, VA added language to its template denial letters explaining next steps a veteran can take in the future based on the reason the application was denied. VA has several types of denial letters, some of which helpfully explain under what circumstances a veteran could reapply for the scholarship. However, VA's wording in some of the denial letters could cause confusion, and it remains unclear how VA handles letters with multiple denial reasons. The agency added a new section to each denial letter called "What You Can Do," that explains how an applicant should proceed after the denial. VA also added plain language following technical statutory language explaining how the statutory eligibility requirement applies to the denial. For applicants whose claims were denied because they had not completed at least 60 standard semester hours, exhausted their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, or were not enrolled in an eligible program, VA clarified the letters. However, the wording remains confusing in letters to applicants who were denied because they received Post-9/11 benefits through a transfer of entitlement or because they never applied for Post-9/11 benefits. Specifically, the letters simultaneously state that the individual is not eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and that the individual should apply for these benefits. To close this recommendation, VA should revise the wording in these letters to ensure they are clear and noncontradictory. In addition, VA should provide evidence of how it handles letters with multiple denial reasons to ensure applicants are not being simultaneously told they will never be eligible for the scholarship and that they should reapply in the future.
|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)||
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 February 2023, VA reported that the agency is in the process of reviewing a randomly selected sample of denied applications and analyzing the reason for denial and the race and sex of the applicant. According to the agency, these samples will be compared against the general population of denied STEM applicants. VA anticipates the analysis will be completed around February 2023. To address this recommendation, VA should provide the results of its current review, evidence of any actions taken to address identified disparities in response to its review, and a plan for this kind of analysis to be completed on a regularly occurring basis.