Spouses and children of service members made up almost one-fourth of Post-9/11 GI Bill users last year, and their numbers appear to be growing, according to data provided by the Veterans Affairs Department.
Troops and veterans, who can transfer the generous education benefit after meeting time-in-service thresholds, still accounted for the majority of Post-9/11 users in 2012: nearly 500,000 people, representing about a 13 percent increase from the previous year.
But use of the benefit by spouses and children grew even faster. The number of spouses using Post-9/11 benefits jumped from some 32,000 in 2011 to more than 54,000 last year, an increase of nearly 70 percent. The rate of use by children increased more than 13 percent, to 93,500.
Ryan Gallucci, an official with Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he's pleased to see the big increase in spouse usage, since the transient nature of military life leads to “significant economic disadvantages” for them.
“I think it's also important to note that total enrollment among all three groups is up,” he said.
Overall, more than 646,000 people used the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2012, up 16 percent from the 555,000 users last year, data indicate.
VA provided Military Times with numbers of Post-9/11 GI Bill users broken into the three categories, for the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. VA was unable to produce additional years of data or more in-depth demographic information, such as a breakdown of the paygrades of the service members sharing their education benefits with family.
VA also issued new information detailing how much money it paid for Post-9/11 benefits for troops, veterans, spouses and children in 2012. Such information was not available for 2011, officials said.
While veterans and service members account for about 77 percent of the people using the benefit, they used more than 84 percent of the dollars spent on the program. Spouses, a little more than 8 percent of the demographic pie, used only about 3.5 percent of the dollars.
Why service members and veterans are pursuing more costly educations, on average, than spouses is unclear, though Gallucci suggested that Yellow Ribbon scholarships, which are available only to service members and veterans, could be a factor.
Gallucci and Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, both cautioned that drawing broad conclusions from the limited VA data is difficult.
Effects of a drawdown
One trend that Dakduk expects to continue over coming years is the overall rise in GI Bill usage.
“There's a drawdown occurring right now,” Dakduk said. “I think you're going to see a rise in usage from veterans and from spouses and children.”
Gallucci speculated that the drawdown might result in faster growth of GI Bill usage among veterans than among their family members.
“Are we hitting a peak where transferred benefits are being taken advantage of?” he said. “You're going to have a lot more veterans and service members eligible for the benefit who need it for their own education.”
The drawdown may also prevent some in the military from serving the number of years required to become eligible to transfer benefits, Gallucci noted.
To transfer Post-9/11 benefits, a service member must have at least six years in the armed forces and agree to serve another four. Alternatively, troops can transfer benefits if they:
Are eligible for retirement or will become eligible through August of this year.
Have served at least 10 years, are prevented by law or policy from serving a full additional four years and agree to serve as much examining time as allowed.
The benefit can be transferred, in whole or in part, to a service member's children, spouse or both.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of in-state tuition at public universities, helps cover books and pays a generous housing stipend that varies depending on location but averages $1,400 to $1,500 per month nationwide.
The VA data provides a fuller picture of the frequency of benefit transfers, but also leaves many questions unanswered.
“Is this [benefit transferring] a trend among officer versus enlisted?” Gallucci said. “I don't think we have enough data to go off of to make a really informed opinion.”
Dakduk said his organization is working with VA to get more in-depth data on the demographics of service members who transfer their benefits, and hopes to know more by year's end.