After years of claims — backed up by little hard data — that some schools have been providing current and former service members poor educations for their education benefits, federal officials may be on the verge of coming out with information that could help distinguish the good schools from the bad.
Curtis Coy, a deputy undersecretary with the Veterans Affairs Department, said his agency could release school-by-school, veteran-specific data on a host of academic success and outcome measures as soon as January.
The Defense Department also plans to come out with similar information next year.
This type of data has been long-awaited and could make it easier for current and former troops to figure out which schools provide the best values for their benefits — but difficult questions remain about how that equation should be calculated, and some schools are expressing skepticism about the approach.
"We want to try and be as transparent as possible, with people seeing the data with all the footnotes that go with it," Coy said.
"I would ask that folks be patient. This is going to be an iterative and growing process that has never, quite frankly, ever been done."
The Education Department collects enormous amounts of data on institutions of higher learning and their traditional student populations. But the key measures for student success, which track how well colleges and universities get their students to stay in school and graduate, provide no information specifically to military and veteran students.
In fact, those measures often completely ignore service members, veterans and anyone else who doesn't fit the mold of the traditional, full-time college freshman.
Going to school part time using military tuition assistance? Starting school as a vet with a bunch of credit hours already earned while in uniform? Transferring from one college to another?
If so, you're never counted in the first-time, full-time student category that the Education Department stats track.
The resulting lack of information has been particularly problematic as some lawmakers and federal officials have leveled charges that for-profit schools have been taking advantage of troops and vets by sucking up their education benefits while offering little in return.
But without hard data, critics have been unable to substantially document the problems at bad schools — while good schools have been unable to defend themselves.
That has left military and vet students to guess which camp any particular school might fall into.
"Absolutely, I think we need to have better metrics that help us make those distinctions," said Marcia Watson, vice provost for academic affairs at University of Maryland University College, a public university that primarily serves troops, vets and other nontraditional students.
In April 2012, President Obama issued an executive order that provided guidelines for schools on educating current and former service members.
That order also directed VA, DoD and the Education Department to "develop a comprehensive strategy for developing service member and veteran student outcome measures."
Two and a half years later, federal officials say those measures are on the way.
In an email, DoD said it plans to release several categories of statistics to track how active-duty service members do in school, to include a graduation rate that takes a special approach to accounting for part-time students.
DoD said these stats will be coming next year, but could not say approximately when in 2015.
The Education Department referred Military Times to VA for information.
VA's Coy said that while traditional graduation and retention rates look at first-time students, VA will include students using VA education benefits for the first time, regardless of whether they attended school previously. That change means more student vets will be counted.
The standard graduation rate focuses on whether students have graduated with 150 percent of the time expected for their degrees: six years for a bachelor's or three years for an associate. Coy said VA will maintain that standard.
Not all schools are responding with uniform praise for the new federal initiative.
Wallace Boston, president and chief executive officer of American Public University System, the parent company of for-profit tuition assistance behemoth American Military University, said he had not even heard that federal agencies were launching this effort until asked about it by Military Times.
"If the school's not aware about it, I'm not sure how [federal officials] can get accurate retention data," he said.
Both Boston and UMUC's Watson said the feds should adopt a different method to measure student success, conceived jointly by those schools and others serving military and nontraditional students.
That metric would look only at students transferring at least nine credits into a school who then complete at least three classes at the school, with a grade-point average of 2.0 or higher.
Such students are then given 200 percent of the expected degree completion time — eight years for a bachelor's degree — to graduate.
Schools backing that measure contend that it's a better way to track nontraditional transfer students who may not be able to go to school full time but are serious about getting their degree from a particular school.
But big changes to how student success is measured may not sit well with traditional schools that have long relied on the established metrics.
"I feel that the move is an attempt to improve the numbers without actually having to work to improve the outcomes," Anthony Dotson, veterans resource center coordinator for the University of Kentucky, said in an email. "Redefining success is easier than actually fixing the problem."
There are other potential problems with the feds' new plan as well:
■ Officials won't be able to tell whether first-time GI Bill users are transferring in credits earned through tuition assistance or another method, so a student transferring in no credits could be expected to complete a degree in the same time as a student transferring in two-thirds of the required credits.
■ Students whose benefits run out before their degrees are complete would be counted as not graduating, even if they graduate later.
■ Schools are not required by law to report to VA all of the vet-specific data that the department wants to track, so "the data that we have ... is only as good as the data that schools provide us," Coy said.
He added that VA is still "banging around" how the new stats should be handled.
"This is going to be interesting, to say the least," Coy said.
The Veterans Affairs Department hopes to release this data specific to VA beneficiaries next year:
Graduation rates: First-time VA education beneficiaries earning a degree within 150 percent of the expected completion time, amounting to six years for a bachelor's degree and three years for an associate.
Transfer rates: First-time VA education beneficiaries transferring out of an institution before earning a degree.
Retention rates: First-time VA education beneficiaries who either return to the institution the year after starting or complete the educational program by that time.
Persistence rates: First-time VA education beneficiaries who either enroll in a school for two consecutive years or complete the educational program over that time.
Number of degrees/certificates: Total VA education beneficiaries completing a degree or certificate in a particular year.
Number of years to a degree: Average time VA education beneficiaries take to complete a degree.
Number of schools to a degree: Average number of schools VA education beneficiaries attend to complete a degree.