RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Record numbers of veterans are returning home from war and heading to college. The biggest draw for many: the generous benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In just three years it has helped 360,000 vets go to school. Advocates for veterans say the money is well-deserved and will turn out to be a fine investment, though as yet, NPR's Larry Abramson reports, there is still little known about how these students are doing.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: For years, Sarah Yaw has been working with veterans at Cayuga Community College, a small school in rural upstate New York. She took a leave in 2009, around the time when the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect. When she returned to the school, she found a dramatic change.
SARAH YAW: In that time period we had a 400-percent increase in student veterans on campus. So this is an institution that does not have a recruitment plan in place to specifically recruit student veterans. As a result, we were sort of caught flat-footed.
ABRAMSON: Yaw says many of the vets showing up at her door were the first in their families to go to college. And they brought new challenges, like one vet who started school just weeks after leaving the service.
YAW: So I asked him how he was doing. And he said I can't get through the parking lot. And essentially what he meant was this space is not secure to me, given my training and my combat experience.
ABRAMSON: Sarah Yaw realized students like this one needed a lot more than traditional college counseling. She formed a consortium with other educators in the upstate area. There wasn't any extra money for counseling this new population. GI Bill money goes to students, not to schools. But she and her colleagues put their heads together and came up with ways to help this new students. That sort of thing is going on all over the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
ABRAMSON: Like at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There vets and administrators built their own student center.
DUAN COPELAND: I kind of liken it to a USO. People can come in here, relax, eat lunch, study. We have free printing, free sodas.
ABRAMSON: Duan Copeland served in the Army. Now he's a student of microbiology and a member of the local Student Veterans of America chapter. Despite his baby face, Copeland is 29, a lot older than many students on campus. You feel like an old man at this school?
COPELAND: In classes, yes. Yeah, in classes, yes, I do. But up here, no. I feel right at home.
ABRAMSON: There is a couch, a TV, a bunch of computers. In the corner, clocks tick off the time in Baghdad, Kabul, Tucson and in Muskogee, Oklahoma. That's where the government processes GI Bill benefits.
COPELAND: Do I need to come to you and do that or...
ABRAMSON: There are about a thousand people using GI Bill money at the University of Arizona. With no extra funding for the school itself, the university is paying for the center out of its own budget, because it hopes this place will create the bond that leads to success. Money is tight at most public schools, and staff here know they must prove the need for this place. So they're gathering data about these students. When they enter the door, students swipe their ID cards.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hoo-ah.
ABRAMSON: ...and they get a little military audio salute. That swipe creates a record, which helps the center justify more support and more space from the university. Like all good gathering places, this one has a den mother: Maralynn Bernstein. She hands out hugs, along with an endless stream of advice, about how to navigate the maze of GI benefits and the university bureaucracy.
MARALYNN BERNSTEIN: But they have your (unintelligible)...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, they said it's fine...
BERNSTEIN: OK. If you don't get anything by the 1st of December, let me know and I'll step in.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK.
ABRAMSON: Every time Bernstein tries to leave to get something to eat, someone grabs her with one more question. Bernstein says she got involved with the center because she realized the university didn't know much about its burgeoning population of veterans.
BERNSTEIN: No, the university does not know. To get accepted, you do not have to tell them how you're paying for it.
ABRAMSON: Thanks to the center, the university now knows a lot more about this population. Bernstein says a lot of veterans arriving here are going through a bit of culture shock.
BERNSTEIN: The veterans coming back haven't been in an academic setting for, you know, anywhere between four, 10, 15, 20 years. Some of them have families, dependents. Some of them have jobs.
ABRAMSON: And many bear scars from their years of service, like student Dan Standage, who started this office in 2008. Standage lost his vision while in the military. And as a blind student, the first thing he had to learn was how to ask for help.
DAN STANDAGE: Teaching you how to be a little bit more independent, be an independent student, and advocating for yourself, walking into the classroom and saying, hey, I have a visual impairment, Professor. What can you do for me?
ABRAMSON: Dan Standage says that was hard for him because it went against his military training.
STANDAGE: The training that we received teaches us to be part of a team, not to be an individual. And so any time that you do anything for yourself, it just feels awkward.
ABRAMSON: Now Standage is getting a master's in orientation and mobility so he can help other blind people get around. OK, so some vets are getting support. That's nice, but is it helping them graduate? Truth is, we have no idea. There are no national statistics on veterans' graduation rates. The lack of data recently led to a slight panic among vet supporters. Some press accounts cited information that said only three percent of vets were getting degrees. Advocates quickly debunked that number, and the source of the information said it was not legit. But the episode just pointed to the need for data.
MICHAEL DAKDUK: We need to look at the numbers and find out what the real return on investment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill is.
ABRAMSON: Michael Dakduk is executive director of Student Veterans of America. He's working on developing a database to show what nearly a million new vets are doing with the $24 billion and counting that they've received.
DAKDUK: How successful student veterans are in college and in their studies. How many folks are graduating. How many folks are succeeding. And once they graduate, how many folks are getting employed.
ABRAMSON: The Department of Veterans Affairs says it's also starting to develop this information, thanks in part to a strong shove from the White House. But it won't be easy. As with traditional students, the information we have about graduation rates and job placement is pretty sketchy. Curtis Coy is with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
CURTIS COY: The difficulty as well is there's very few schools track veterans as a cohort.
ABRAMSON: That's because education statistics focus on first-time, full-time students, and that leaves out a lot of vets and many other students. Support for the GI Bill is high right now, but backers of this program know they have to prove success, especially in an era of budget cuts. Many say the best way to ensure that graduation numbers are strong is to provide plenty of support for vets when they start school. Larry Abramson, NPR News.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Of course choosing a school takes a whole lot of research and not all of the information out there is reliable. That's what led to this week's announcement from the Department of Veterans Affairs that GI Bill is now a registered trademark. This came out of an order from the president's desk last spring.
MONTAGNE: The trademark is aimed at stopping deceptive and misleading online ads, like one website titled GIBill.com that listed mostly for-profit schools that took tuition money from the GI Bill. Congressional investigators have found that some for-profit schools try to get veterans to sign on with them without disclosing full information about things like tuition costs and loans.
GREENE: Now with the GI Bill a registered trademark, the VA hopes veterans can get directly to the right resources.