Changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other education benefits may have little impact on military recruitment and retention, a new study suggests.

That's because many new recruits and service members don't have a good grasp on how they work, according to a RAND Corporation report evaluating military education benefits.

"I think that service members have a general understanding that the military will help them pay for college," said Jennie Wenger, a senior economist at RAND, an organization tasked with researching this topic by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. "They're weaker on the details."

So, if military education benefits are a draw, it's likely not because of the specifics.

But that doesn't diminish the value of education benefits, maintain veteran services organizations.

"The fact that recruits and service members don't know or fully appreciate the details of the benefit is less important than supporting their intention to pursue education through the military lifecycle," Student Veterans of America said in a statement.

Changing education benefits

The report comes as veteran advocacy groups have been pushing Congress to make changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill that would, among other things, expand eligibility for wounded service members and reservists. SVA recently proposed a controversial pay-in structure that would harken back to older versions of the GI Bill, though a spokesman for the group said that the pay-in is no longer a priority.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers school tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for textbooks and supplies, representing what Wenger called a "significant expansion of education benefits" from its predecessor, the Montgomery GI Bill. The latest version, which went into effect in 2009, also got rid of the requirement that service members pay in to the program to access the benefits.

But the changes from one version of the GI Bill to the next don't seem to be widely known among service members, Wenger said.

RAND researchers polled 165 new Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy recruits who had not yet attended boot camp to see how much they knew about education benefits. Less than a quarter of recruits were familiar with tuition assistance, a federal benefit that covers the cost of tuition – up to particular limits – for active-duty service members. The recruits also expressed confusion about the Post-9/11 GI Bill, including its value, the length of service needed to qualify for the benefit and its housing stipend.

Yet education was among the recruits' commonly cited reasons for joining the military, which also included employment, maintaining family traditions and patriotism, the study notes.

In addition to new recruits, researchers also sought the perspectives of college advisors on campuses with a significant proportion of military students, as well as analyzing Google search trends, Status of Forces Surveys of Active Duty Members and other data.

Affects on recruitment

Veterans, too, "lack a complete and nuanced understanding" of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, especially of the differences between it and the Montgomery GI Bill, according to the report, which cited this as the most likely explanation for the "muted effects" of the Post-9/11 GI Bill's passage on recruitment.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill did appear to be responsible for a small -- but not negligible -- increase in high-quality active-duty and reservist recruits, as measured by performance on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Still, researchers write that their motivations for enlisting are likely mainly for reasons other than the GI Bill's increased benefits, since they don't have a good grasp on the details.

The benefit had a slightly negative impact on retention. When comparing service members with similar characteristics who served in the military before and after the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, researchers found a decrease in overall retention after the first term – something many feared early on. The decrease was smaller among service members with dependents, however, suggesting that the option to transfer benefits to spouses or children is an incentive to continue in the service.

Per the Department of Veterans Affairs, service members must have already served in the military for six years to transfer benefits to a dependent and must agree to serve four more years after a transfer is approved.  

"The impacts on recruiting and retention appear to have been modest to date. Therefore, changes to the structure of the existing benefit, such as changes to the pay-in or changes to the living allowance, also would be expected to have small impacts," Wenger said, noting that she was speculating. The report's results should not be interpreted as a reflection of the value of the benefits themselves, she said.

A spokesperson for the VA said the department does not have data to support the study's key findings and deferred to the DoD for comment. DoD did not provide comment by press time.

Beyond recruitment

Representatives for veteran service organizations promoting GI Bill reforms said the lack of detailed knowledge about education benefits isn't surprising. But the GI Bill could still be improved.

VFW Director of National Veteran Service Ryan Gallucci said education benefits are not solely about recruitment.

"It's more about quality programs for veterans when they leave the military," he said.

About 67 percent of student veterans are first-generation college students, according to Student Veterans of America, and they generally have limited insight into higher education in general.

And, the organization posits, good or bad experiences with the GI Bill would ultimately impact recruiting -- if the word got out that the GI Bill wasn't covering costs or that the housing stipend wasn't adequate, for example.

The new recruits surveyed for the RAND study who were well informed about TA and the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits were generally older, more likely to have college experience, more likely to be female, and less likely to be joining the Marines, according to the report.

In addition to other recommendations that new recruits and first-time benefit users get better guidance, researchers write that DoD should continue to focus on traditional tools, such as bonuses, to manage the force.

The report states, "Indeed, while DoD should do as much as possible to ensure that education programs serve to benefit the Department and assist service members in obtaining their goals, our results suggest that changes to education benefits are unlikely to have large, substantial impacts on key aspects of force management (namely, recruiting and retention)."