Student veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill are mostly pursuing bachelor's or graduate degrees, attending public or private schools rather than for-profit institutions, and studying disciplines such as business, healthcare and STEM, a new study from Student Veterans of America found.

The National Veteran Education Success Tracker, or NVEST, project also found that student veterans earn degrees at rates better than comparable nonveteran students. But pinpointing a completion or success rate for this group remains difficult and highly open to interpretation.

By one measure, it's 72 percent. By another, 42 percent.

That lower number still beats the 39 percent completion rate for all students who enter school over the age of 24, which is likely the best comparison group for student vets, as calculated in a 2015 National Student Clearinghouse study.

"The percentage of those who have been successful is amazing and needs to be applauded," said Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact at the Lumina Foundation, which helped fund the study.

Veterans Affairs Department Education Service Director Robert Worley, who joined Brown on a panel discussing the findings during an SVA conference in January, effusively praised the NVEST project.

"I want to congratulate SVA for this research, and it is nothing short of phenomenal," Worley said. "It was massive. It's going to be far-reaching in its impact."

Since August 2009, when the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, the government has spent some $71 billion on the benefit, according to Worley.

With such a high price tag, veterans advocates and government officials have sought, for years, a clearer understanding of how the Post-9/11 GI Bill is used: how well vets do in college, where they go to school and what they study. Questions over the quality of the education received by veterans, particularly at for-profit colleges and universities, have further increased this interest.

But the intense spotlight on the issue has not resulted in a wealth of information. Some of the Education Department's most relied-on academic progress statistics are calculated in a way that ignores most student veterans. The VA has developed veteran graduation rate figures, but these cannot track students who transfer schools or continue their studies after their education benefits expire.

NVEST attempts to bridge this gap through a partnership with VA and the National Student Clearinghouse that allows researchers to identify and track students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill throughout their academic careers, even as they transfer schools or run out of GI Bill benefits.

"The value of this report is that it's tracking those student veterans wherever they go," said Doug Shapiro, the National Student Clearinghouse's executive research director.

72 percent or 42 percent?

Student Veterans of America's NVEST project offers new insights about student veterans but also comes with its own caveats and problems.

Veterans advocates, including SVA, have long feared that lawmakers could be tempted to cut back or eliminate the generous Post-9/11 GI Bill, especially if it appears that vets aren't putting the taxpayer dollars to good use by graduating.

Some of the NVEST project's results are interpreted in ways that could inflate veteran academic success rates.

SVA touts what it calls a 72 percent "success rate" as a banner finding from the NVEST study. However, that includes not just the 54 percent of veteran students who earned a certificate or degree but another 18 percent still in school at the end of the study.

On top of that, it counts degrees earned prior to a veteran's first use of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. By that method, a student who earned a vocational certificate at a community college, joined the military, then attended a university on the GI Bill as a veteran and flunked out would count as a successful graduate because of the vocational certificate.

Strip out the students still in school and those with only pre-GI Bill degrees and the study shows that 42 percent of veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill earned a degree or certificate.

SVA said the study's interpretations of success were necessary to compensate for other limitations.

For example, similar research projects are typically limited to groups of students starting school in the same year. This is the case for the previously mentioned National Student Clearinghouse study, which found that 39 percent of adult students graduated. That study was based on students starting in 2009.

By contrast, NVEST studied veteran students who first used the Post-9/11 GI Bill between Aug. 2009 and Dec. 2013. Students who enrolled in school closer to 2009 had more time to earn a degree and be counted as graduating, as compared with students who started closer to 2013.

"There would be an unintentional penalty against those student veterans who used the Post-9/11 Bill in later years," SVA spokesman Barrett Bogue said in an email. Counting students still in school at the end of the project's period of study, as well as veterans whose only degree came before they used the GI Bill, as part of the 72 percent "success rate" could make up for that unintentional penalty.

SVA plans to continue studying student veteran academic success rates, and officials said that future projects will go into greater detail.

What vets study and where

The study looked at 822,327 student veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill -- excluding military family members using transferred benefits -- whose first GI Bill use was between 2009 and 2013.

Students were counted as graduating if they earned an academic credential of any kind by September 2015, whether that credential was a low-level certificate, a doctorate, or anything in between.

Bachelor's degrees were the most popular academic credential, accounting for 43 percent of all academic credentials tracked by the NVEST study. Associate degrees accounted for 27 percent, master's degrees 18 percent, certificates 10 percent, and doctoral or post-doctoral degrees 2 percent.

About 20 percent of vets using the Post-9/11 GI Bill studied fields related to business, management and marketing. STEM subjects -- a category that SVA defines to include computer science, engineering, math, technological studies and various sciences -- were studied by 11 percent of vets in the study.

The next three most popular fields were liberal arts and the humanities at 9 percent, healthcare at 8 percent and law-enforcement at 7 percent.

"The majority of student veterans are majoring and earning degrees in high-demand, stable career fields," said Chris Cate, SVA's vice president of research.

The NVEST project did not detail how vets attending for-profit schools fare as compared to those in public or private nonprofit schools. But it did show that vets are turning more to public institutions. Nearly 59 percent of student vets enrolled in school between January and September 2015 attended public colleges and universities, with 26 percent at for-profit schools and 15 percent at private nonprofit institutions.

Based on study results, SVA projects that about 100,000 GI Bill users will earn degrees each year going forward.

"To be able to say that the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the hard work of student veterans produces 100,000 degrees a year is phenomenal," Worley said.