Roughly 2 million veterans and their family members are eligible for tuition, books and living expenses under the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
And like every budget line in Washington, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told the annual gathering of Student Veterans of America that their education benefits need to show a “return on investment” or risk being cut.
This is the fourth time Shinseki has addressed the SVA national conference and each time he’s carried the same message.
“The one word speech I usually give is graduate, graduate, graduate,” Shinseki said punctuating his words for emphasis. “If I sound like your dad, I am. I’m paying most of your bills.”
But paying those education benefits could have a cost if the VA can’t show results.
The problem is there is very little data on student veteran graduation rates.
Last year, two media reports used unsubstantiated data claiming extremely high dropout rates. But until there’s good data, veterans’ organizations say they have to continually refute those two unsubstantiated reports.
Shinseki reported that progress is being made. More than 2,600 schools are now voluntarily reporting graduation rates to the VA. He said between June 2011 and December 2012, schools notified the VA that more than 62,000 veterans graduated and 4,800 completed programs.
“The best measurement of success is completion rates for those who enter the education realm or the training realm,” Shinseki said. “It’s not who goes in the front door but who completes the program and moves on to successful lives.”
The VA just signed an agreement with the Student Veterans of America organization and the National Student Clearing House to create data base for post 9-11 GI bill beneficiaries.
“We are now entering the fourth year of the post 9-11 GI bill. Shot clock ticks, we need to get as much energy into this so we benefit veterans who have this opportunity that only comes around once in a rare period,” Shinseki said. “I’m a Vietnam generation guy, we didn’t have this.”
He said the original GI Bill for WWII veterans only lasted 12 years and during that time, 7.8 million GIs got an education.
Shinseki advised the 600 SVA members attending the conference to continue to do the hard work they did while serving in the military. And like a father-figure, he told the young men and women he was very proud of them.
“Do good. Take advantage of this opportunity, but help other veterans who are also going through this process with you,” Shinseki said. “You’re not a formation. There are not commanders, no first sergeants in this group. But you’re a unit. You have that shared experience. You know how to take care of each other. You know how to start a run and finish it.”
He said he would be there to cheer them on, open doors and provide resources --- but he can’t write their papers or take their tests and that student veterans should be there to help each other.