While the Post-9/11 GI Bill allows eligible service members to transfer their education benefits to a spouse or children, most troops and veterans of every stripe plan to use the vast majority of the benefits for themselves, a new poll suggests.
Whether officers or enlisted personnel, high-ranking or low-ranking, male or female, soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines, a majority of those surveyed in every category said they have used, or will use, 70 percent or more of their Post-9/11 benefits for themselves.
The poll, conducted by Excelsior College, also underscored the importance of military tuition assistance, a benefit for active-duty service members that has faced an uncertain future since several branches of the military suspended it this spring, only to have Congress force its reinstatement for the rest of the fiscal year.
However it’s paid for, agreement about the importance of a college degree is near-universal: 93 percent among active duty and vets combined. Jerry Lindsley, president of the Center for Research and Public Policy, which conducted the Excelsior College Patriot Poll, said he’s glad to see such a high interest in education. But it also presents challenges.
“You’re downsizing the military, and you’ve got 96.3 percent [of active duty troops] suggesting that a college degree is important,” Lindsley said. “Are the colleges, like Excelsior, prepared and ready for a downsized military who’s going to be out there looking for an education?”
The poll was conducted online between July 15 and Aug. 5, sampling the opinions of 864 current and former service members nationwide, according to officials who worked on the poll. Military Times assisted in developing some survey questions. It has a 3.5 percent margin of error.
The margin of error increases to 5 percent when veterans and active duty service members are considered separately, and it increases further with additional demographic breakdowns.
Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, cautioned against drawing definitive conclusions on the data related to who uses Post-9/11 themselves and who passes the benefit to dependents.
The relatively small number of officers sampled could lead to unreliable results. Meanwhile, lower-ranking enlisted personnel are likely not yet eligible to transfer and won’t be for several years, if at all, so their plans are much less concrete, he said.
But “it’s positive that it seems that most service members, regardless of rank, want to use the benefit for their personal educational goals,” Gallucci said.
While majorities of service members across all demographics indicated they would use 70 percent to 100 percent of the benefit for themselves, Chris Cate, director of research for Student Veterans of America, noted there was movement in the low-self-use category.
“If you look at the trend, I would say from E1 to 09, you do see the 0 percent to 30 percent go up with the higher rank,” Cate said.
Women were perhaps the greatest outlier on this question, with 68 percent saying they planned to use or have used most of their Post-9/11 benefits for themselves. By comparison, 57 percent of men indicated the same.
Gallucci noted that women are more likely than men to attend college in the general population and suggested that the poll results could reflect the same trend in the military. Officials behind the poll and veterans service organizations agreed that more study of the issue may be needed.
The poll results echo data that the Veterans Affairs Department provided Military Times in the spring, showing that more than three quarters of Post-9/11 users in fiscal 2012 were veterans themselves, as opposed to dependents.
Still, those numbers showed the number of dependents using Post-9/11 benefits on the rise from the previous year. And while majorities of current and former service members indicated in the poll that they’d be using most of the benefits themselves, only a small minority said they planned to use all of the benefits themselves.
VA said it has no new information since that data was released, and it does not track rank information.
TA still a vital benefit
The poll also asked current and former service members to detail how they financed, or plan to finance, their educations. Tuition assistance was tops overall.
“I think it demonstrates that service members and veterans value that investment [TA] in higher education,” Gallucci said.
Active duty service members rated TA as the most important benefit for financing their educations. The Post-9/11 GI Bill placed second and the Montgomery GI Bill third.
For vets, TA placed second, while federal Pell Grants narrowly took the top spot and the Montgomery GI Bill landed in third. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which has become very popular with current and recently separated service members, placed sixth. This might be explained by the fact that many of the vets polled left the military before the Post-9/11 GI Bill was established in 2009, Lindsley said.
Is word getting out?
Despite the array of education benefits available to service members, two-thirds identified cost as a “primary barrier” keeping them from achieving additional education.
Veterans service organizations reported hearing about such problems from their members, and the groups cited rising college costs and the lack of in-state tuition at some public schools as likely culprits.
In a written statement, VA spokesman Randy Noller touted the Post-9/11 GI Bill as offering “an outstanding opportunity for students, with generous benefits.”
The statement also detailed the department’s efforts to make vets aware of the educational benefits available to them, including the 888-GIBILL-1 hotline.
“VA is committed to assisting veterans with understanding benefits to which they may be entitled, and this is covered during separation briefings in the transition assistance program, mailings to veterans after discharge, and through a robust 24/7 Web site at www.gibill.va.gov,” the statement said.
But the poll results suggest that more still needs to be done.
Nearly 73 percent of respondents indicated that they needed additional help understanding which benefits they were eligible for. Nearly 12 percent didn’t know if they had any remaining VA education benefits at all.
Veterans service organizations expressed little surprise at the findings.
They called for improvements to the transition assistance program, more transparency from schools and better help from VA.
“This isn’t necesarily a new issue about veterans understanding their education benefits,” SVA’s Cate said.