Students in 2016 have more tools, filled with more data, than ever before to help them decide where to go to college.

But when it comes to informing service members and veterans, that vast quantity of information is of varying — and sometimes quite poor — quality.

"I think we're still far away from having the kind of reliable information that people can base good decisions on," said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, or AASCU. "These [tools] are works in progress, and at the end of the day, you really do need to do your own due diligence."

Three federal agencies have established four searchable, online tools that provide information to prospective students, some of it tailored to service members and veterans, some of it decidedly not.

635963417345153070-Screen-Shot-2016-04-15-at-4.28.29-PM.png

While College Navigator has a wealth of data for traditional college students coming straight out of high school, its most prominent student outcome measures tend to ignore service members and veterans.
Photo Credit: College Navigator
College Navigator

The Education Department's College Navigator tool is the oldest of the group.

It includes some 7,700 institutions searchable by name, type, region, degree level and degree type. The tool provides information across more than a dozen categories, including accreditation, cost and academic outcomes.

While it has a wealth of data for traditional college students coming straight out of high school, College Navigator has little information geared toward service members and vets — and its most prominent student outcome measures tend to ignore them completely.

Retention rates, which measure whether students continue their education after starting, consider only first-time students. Graduation rates, which measure whether students earn degrees, consider only first-time, full-time students. Default rates, which measure whether students successfully make loan payments, consider only students who received loans from the federal government.

The problem is that military and veteran students are:

  • Almost always part-time students when they start their education while on active duty.
  • Almost never first-time students when they first enroll full-time as veterans, as they earned credits from part-time schooling or military training.
  • Not as likely to rely on federal student loans when using tuition assistance and GI Bill education benefits.

As a result, service members and veterans are usually left out of these measures. This creates enormous problems if you're looking at colleges that mostly focus on such nontraditional students.

At the nation's two largest TA providers, American Public University System — the parent institution of American Military University — and University of Maryland University College, fewer than 1 percent and 3 percent of students, respectively, meet the first-time, full-time requirement to be counted in the graduation rate. This means the rate ignores more than nine in every 10 students at the institutions.

"Clearly we need to get to a place where we're accounting for all of the students who enroll in higher education," said David Bergeron, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress. He added that veterans, in particular, are getting the short end of the stick: "At the moment, we're doing second-best, and second-best is not good enough."

College ScorecardIn September 2015, the White House and Education Department rolled out a slick, new information tool.

Similar to College Navigator, College Scorecard is designed primarily using information on traditional students, with the tool's only military-related aspect consisting of a link to the Veterans Affairs Department tool.

College Scorecard features much of the same information as the other Education Department tool, College Navigator, but it is laid out in a simpler manner and typically includes fewer details. The 3 percent caveat that College Navigator applies to the UMUC graduation rate, for example, is nowhere to be found in that section of College Scorecard.

Perhaps the tool's most interesting addition is data on how much money students earn 10 years after enrolling at a college. While it provides an alternate perspective on student outcomes, this measure carries red flags as well.

The biggest: Similar to default rate data, this information counts only students who use federal financial aid, which service members and veterans are less likely to do.

And this can even be a problematic stat for traditional students to rely on, AASCU's Nassirian said. A lot can change in an institution or a program over that 10-year period, he said, and the schoolwide average, which combines outcomes across all academic programs, glosses over the degree-specific details that could be more useful.

"Providing an institutional average ... that's not particularly actionable information," he said.

In a statement, an Education Department spokesman noted shortcomings with some of the data. The statement said the Education Department was working to collect graduation and completion rate data that includes the nontraditional students left out of the existing metrics.

"The department will continue listening to students and their advocates to determine the best ways to engage and inform users, making changes in future iterations of the tool," the statement said.

The Veterans Affairs Department's GI Bill Comparison Tool is comparatively packed with veteran-specific information, including estimates of how far GI Bill coverage will go to cover costs.
The Veterans Affairs Department's GI Bill Comparison Tool is comparatively packed with veteran-specific information, including estimates of how far GI Bill coverage will go to cover costs.
GI Bill Comparison ToolIn contrast to the Education Department's tools, VA's college finder is loaded with information specifically for veterans.

The GI Bill Comparison Tool can estimate how much in tuition cost coverage and available stipends various VA education benefits will provide, depending on an individual's length of service, military status and college.

The tool provides military- and veteran-specific information showing whether an institution:

  • Has a student veterans group.
  • Agreed to various military and veteran education initiatives.
  • Participates in the VetSuccess on Campus program.

It also includes several other data points, some of which are student outcome measures specific to veterans, such as graduation and retention rates. These rates do not ignore all students who have spent some time in college, as their Education Department counterparts do.

However, the rates don't count students who have already used VA education benefits at another institution, and the department does not track students who run out of those benefits. Because military and veteran students are much more likely to attend multiple colleges and have a wide variety of benefit levels and lengths, this could make it difficult to rely extensively on the veteran-specific numbers.

The tool publishes veteran retention rates for many institutions, both four-year and two-year. Military Times was able to find veteran graduation rates posted only for two-year schools; and unable to find institutions with veteran-specific salary and loan default rates reported, though the tool provides places for reporting the data.

In a statement, VA noted that the department has made many improvements to the tool since rolling it out and has more updates planned for the future, which will include letting veterans rate their colleges.

"Our commitment is to improve the veteran experience, and that includes the information we display on the GI Bill Comparison Tool," the statement said.

The Defense Department's TA Decide college finder provides some general student outcomes attributed to the Education Department but largely sticks to data specific to use of the tuition assistance benefit.
The Defense Department's TA Decide college finder provides some general student outcomes attributed to the Education Department but largely sticks to data specific to use of the tuition assistance benefit.
TA DecideThe Defense Department's college-search tool includes basic information about the institution pulled from other agencies but largely describes TA use: how many TA users attend, how many classes they take and how much money the classes cost.

Also typically included in the data is a course completion rate, showing what proportion of TA users who take a class pass it successfully.

That is a unique measure that other agencies don't regularly track. While it provides a different and in some ways more detailed look at student success, there are reasons to be wary of the course completion rate as well. A high rate doesn't necessarily mean a better school, Nassirian said.

"It may be that an institution has nonexistent standards and anybody with a pulse can pass," he said.

DoD also shows the number of complaints lodged against schools in DoD and VA complaint systems. However, there is no way to tell whether an institution was found at fault in any, some or all of the complaints.

Future challenges and opportunities

"We need to move to a system where we're collecting information about individual students and following their progress," said Bergeron, who worked at the Education Department for more than three decades before joining the Center for American Progress.

Unfortunately, he added, it would be illegal for the Education Department to do that.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 banned the department from tracking individual student performance over time.

Other laws previously barred the government from releasing student information covering individuals; only publication of aggregate data was allowed. But the 2008 law prevented the tracking of students throughout their academic careers, from one institution to another, which can be key to measuring the success of nontraditional students such as service members and veterans.

Nassirian said that restriction was put in place to address a privacy concern, and he can see both sides of the argument.

"There is something a little Big Brothery," he said. "The flip side of it is: We are spending almost $200 billion a year on subsidies for higher ed without having a sufficiently tight handle on what happens to that investment."

Bergeron had a starker view, saying the real issue is the privacy of institutions that don't want low academic outcome rates to get out, not student privacy.

"The U.S. Department of Education is prohibited under federal law from having such a system because it would embarrass institutions of higher education," Bergeron said. "We've got to get away from protecting the privacy of institutions."

While Congress barred the Education Department from creating such a student tracking system, lawmakers actually empowered the Defense Department to do so, the experts said.

The Solomon Amendment, passed in 1996, lays out types of identifying and academic completion information that institutions of higher education must make available to the Defense Department.

Though this provision was written with military recruiters in mind, Nassirian and Bergeron agreed that DoD could use the information to do what is forbidden for the Education Department.

"I think the Department of Defense should start creating a national data system that captures everyone who's enrolled in post-secondary education," Bergeron said.

Dawn Bilodeau, DoD's voluntary education chief, said in a statement that the department is not in fact legally allowed to do so, citing the same law.

The law "allows the secretary of defense to deny federal grants (including research grants) to institutions of higher education if they prohibit or prevent ROTC or military recruitment on campus but does not permit the collecting or retaining of student identifying information," according to the statement.

Indeed,

mandates that ROTC programs and military recruiters be allowed on campuses. A following subsection then details specific student information that schools must make available to DoD: "(A) Names, addresses, and telephone listings. (B) Date and place of birth, levels of education, academic majors, degrees received, and the most recent educational institution enrolled in by the student."