GAO:AskGAOLive Chat on Veterans and Higher Education

[Background Music ] Welcome to Ask GAO Live.>>Good afternoon, and welcome to Ask GAO Live, the Government Accountability Office’s live-streaming video program. Thank you so much for taking the time to tune in and join us today. My name is Sarah Kaczmarek, I’m in our Office of Public Affairs. I’m joined today by a new guest, Melissa Emrey-Arras, a director in GAO’s Education, Workforce, and Income Security team. Melissa, thanks so much for joining us today.>>Thanks so much for having me here.>>And today we’re going to be talking about veterans and higher education. Melissa’s team recently released a report on this topic looking in part at schools’ recruitment of student veterans. For a little more context or information about their report, you can find it online at our website, that’s, and the report number to look for is GAO-14-324. And you can find it right there on our homepage. Again, it’s GAO-14-324. So before we get started, I want to talk about how you can send in your questions for the chat today. We’ve already gotten a few questions in over e-mail and thanks for those of you who have sent in your questions already. You can send them in over e-mail to [email protected] If you’re on social media, you can also send them in over Twitter, just use the #askgaolive. So we’ll be keeping an eye out for your e-mails and tweets, and we’ll do our best to get you a response. So, Melissa, could you start off us with an introduction to yourself and your work at GAO.>>Sure. I work on education issues and we do national studies on everything from elementary school and high school to college issues, and I focus a lot on higher education, so this is college, trade school for older students, and we’ve done work ranging from covering the cost of student loans to the cost of textbooks, to what it’s like for veterans returning as students with their GI Bill benefits. And we’ve done several reports on this topic, including the one that was released yesterday.>>And could you tell us a little bit more about the report that came out yesterday, looking at schools’ recruitment of student veterans.>>Happy to do so. This is a very exciting report. Prior to this report, there had only been anecdotal information on the experience of student veterans during that school search and recruitment process, and we actually obtained nationally generalizable data about this population. So we have real numbers to talk about the experience of students, using their GI Bill benefits, to go to school.>>Well let me jump right in and ask you then, what did veterans tell you about their experience being recruited by schools?>>We found that thousands of veterans were experiencing negative recruitment processes when being recruited by schools. And what that comes down to is veterans told us that they were being contacted excessively by schools in terms of the number of e-mails and phone calls that they were receiving, and the numbers of veterans affected by this is significant. Our survey shows that about 15,000 veterans reported having negative experiences with schools in terms of excessive contact. Beyond that, closer to 7,000 veterans indicated that they had experiences feeling coerced into attending a school. So this is a significant concern given that these veterans have served our country and we want them to have a, a good transition to college life, and yet they’re feeling harassed and coerced when they’re in this process of selecting a school.>>Well let me turn to the first question that we’ve gotten from our audience here. The question comes from Dan over e-mail, and Dan would like to know how many veterans did we survey in this report?>>Sure. So our survey results are generalizable to the whole population of veterans that first started receiving benefits in 2012. And that was 73,000 veterans. So, we did a statistical sample of surveying 900 of them, but it actually is generalized to that whole population of 73,000 people receiving GI Bill benefits for the first time in 2012.>>And Dan had a second question for us, and his question is, did your report also look at graduation rates for these student veterans?>>Our report asked veterans what information they wanted, and they wanted information on graduation rates. Actually, we have a figure on that, it’s Figure 1. If you look at that, this is not the actual graduation rate of student veterans, but it’s the percentage of students we surveyed who said that they wanted more information on graduation rates. And you can see here in this graphic that they also wanted more information on support services for veterans on campus, as well as information on transferring credits, and also how much they were going to be on the hook for in terms of student loan debt when they graduated.>>Well turning back to what veterans said to it, said in the survey, I have a question here from Sam over e-mail, and Sam would like to know if vets felt like they were being lied to or misled by the schools?>>We, we did hear that. We had a significant number of veterans tell us that they were receiving inaccurate information. And when you look at the actual numbers of people affected, it’s about 16,000 veterans reported receiving what they thought of as inaccurate information, and this could be on graduation rates that they were being told by the school or it could be about financial aid, or job placement rates, so this is really key information and they felt like they were not receiving the truth from schools.>>Let me ask you a follow-up, or a very related question that came in from Randy over e-mail, and Randy would like to know, is it harder for veterans to get good information about schools, and, if so, why would that be?>>That’s a good question. I think veterans are coming from the military, so they’re not coming from a high school with maybe a guidance counselor to sit with them and kind of guide them through the process, and many of the veterans coming back may be first generation college students, so they may be coming from families without those supports in place. And it’s not always easy to find the information that you need. We actually looked at a lot of these websites, and had trouble ourselves finding information, so we were looking for information on the graduation rates or the job placement rates, and sometimes you would find it in these obscure corners of the website, like “consumer disclosures,” places that no one in their right mind would ever visit, and that’s where they put this information, and people couldn’t find it. And I think that’s what you’re seeing there in that graphic, is that people wanted information and felt like they couldn’t find it.>>That’s got to make it really challenging for vets as they try to make informed choices about what schools they might want to attend.>>Yes, very much so, and one of our recommendations in this report is to make sure that they have more assistance in making those choices. And it’s interesting, the Department of Veterans Affairs actually has something like a guidance counselor, they have counselors who are available to provide assistance regarding educational counseling, and it’s free for folks who have these GI Bill benefits, and it’s one-on-one, yet about half of the people that we surveyed had no knowledge that this existed.>>Hmm, that’s got to be a big challenge.>>It is.>>I’m going to turn to our next question from Erica over e-mail, and Erica would like to know, how is veteran recruitment different from regular student recruitment or recruitment of other kinds of students?>>That’s a great question. Thank you Erica for posing it. I think, it’s different for veterans because they have specific offices at schools that are focused on veteran recruitment, so, they may have particular officials whose sole job it is to look for student veterans, to encourage them to apply for their schools. So they tailor e-mail and phone communications to the veteran population. They advertise in print and online media for veterans. And if you go on a lot of schools’ websites, you’ll see a lot of images about people wearing military clothing, the websites will cite that they’re military friendly, and the like. So I think there’s a big push to enroll students who are veterans and who have GI Bill benefits.>>We have a really good question from Paul here over e-mail, and Paul would like to talk a little bit more about the inappropriate tactics being used by schools, and his question is, what are some of the inappropriate tactics schools are using to recruit veterans, and what makes them so inappropriate?>>I think students feel it’s inappropriate when they’ve told a school that they’re no longer interested in attending that school, and yet the school still calls and e-mails them. We had students tell us that they had been receiving daily e-mails and phone calls despite the fact that they had told the schools that they were no longer interested in those programs. And I think at that point it became, it becomes too much for the students.>>Another question over e-mail from Alison, and Alison would like to know, are these recruiting tactics affecting a lot of veterans?>>I think our survey results show that tens of thousands of veterans are being affected. So this is really not a situation where you have onesies and twosies saying that they had a bad experience selecting a school or being recruited by a school, our results show that tens of thousands of student veterans are feeling pressure to enroll and feeling like they are being coerced in a way that is not appropriate.>>Let me turn to another question we got over e-mail from Charles, and this question is getting at the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and he would like to know, how many veterans are using the Post 9/11 GI Bill?>>That’s a great question. We actually have a figure that shows just that. It’s Figure 2 here. And what this figure shows is both the GI Bill benefit program and sort of the, the larger range of other programs, and you can see in the bar chart that the, the darker color there is the GI Bill program, so we have all, all together, about a million participants receiving veterans education benefits, and about three-fourths of them, about 750,000 thousand are receiving the Post-9/11 GI Bill funds. And what’s interesting is when you look at this chart, you can see the number of people receiving GI Bill benefits growing over time.>>Well let me ask you then, why have we seen this grown, and it looks like it’s also growing fairly quickly.>>Yes, yes. I think it’s something that connects with the fact that we have a lot of people coming back from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this enables them to transition to civilian life, to get a degree, to join the workforce. In addition, the benefit is very helpful in that it provides for tuition, as well as living expenses and books, so it’s something that, I think encourages people to think about going back to school.>>And our next question comes from David over e-mail, David would like to know, why do some schools focus on recruiting veterans?>>I think it’s because they have tuition assistance, quite frankly. A lot of other students don’t have that and they need to take out loans, and yet here’s money that these students are bringing with them, and so I think that’s something that’s very appealing to schools that are looking for students who don’t need to take out loans necessarily. If, if someone has been on active duty for 36 months, they are entitled to four years of in-state public school tuition, and so that’s something that I think is appealing to the schools.>>And in your report, your team also talked to some schools when you were doing the investigative work, and how many school, or the schools that you spoke with, what did they tell you about their recruitment practices or how they were trying to do their outreach to students.>>Right. They, they focused on how they wanted to serve the communities, they wanted to serve the veterans coming back. And they would call them, they would e-mail them, they would do advertisements in newspapers, they would sometimes visit bases, go to college fairs, have office hours where perhaps current military students would talk about their experiences with prospective students. So there were a variety of strategies that they use to specifically connect with student veterans, and they were aware that folks were student veterans. They were tracking that information. So they knew based on them asking, are you a veteran, up front, or, perhaps, just tracking how the person entered the website, so if a person entered a school’s website through the page for veterans, they would know that they potentially were a veteran, because they were interested in that topic.>>And you have mentioned previously how the schools have their websites set up, and we have a question here from Christy over e-mail who would like to know, how do schools use their websites to recruit vet, student veterans?>>That’s an excellent question, Christy. They do it in a variety of ways. So, some of them will have separate pages for the sort of veteran experience, and they’ll advertise it that way. They also may place advertisements on other websites to drive traffic to their school website. They, they also use, like lead generators, which are third parties that would sort of encourage people to provide contact information if they want to go back to school, and then they would share that information with a school that might want to connect with that veteran. There are also some that we spoke with that bought lists of military family addresses living in an area and then would send them direct mail, so there are different ways that people reach out to the veteran population, and the web is a very significant one, and veterans told us that they did rely on the web in that decision-making process. So that was something that was helpful for them.>>Thank you. And I’m just going to say again how you can send in your questions. We can send, you can send them in over e-mail to the e-mail address [email protected] And thanks again for everybody who has been sending in your questions over e-mail, and, again, you can also send them in over Twitter using the #askgaolive. And we do have our first question that came in from Twitter, it’s from Steve, and Steve would like to know if a veteran from 1972 to 2001, so prior to the 9, Post-9/11 GI Bill, would they be eligible for education, veterans education benefits, and what about also the children of those veterans?>>That’s a great question, there are programs prior to the Post-9/11 GI Bill program that serve veterans from earlier periods of time. And I would encourage you to, to go on the VA’s website. I believe we actually have a figure on that. You can look at Figure 6, which is about the GI Bill, but you’ll also be able to use that to link to other programs. There’s the Montgomery GI Bill, which predates the Post-9/11 one, as well as other pre-existing educational benefit programs for veterans. So, there are other programs that are available for people from earlier periods of, of service, and in the current Post-9/11 GI Bill program, I know that there are certain provisions that allow people to pass on their benefits to children and you could look, depending on what you might be eligible for, you can see if the other programs do that as well.>>Thanks Melissa, that’s really helpful to be able to share that information with folks. We have another question here over e-mail from Terry, and Terry would like to know, could you provide more information on education and career counseling for veterans?>>Sure. So I, there are several options available for folks. So there is the, the live, in-person, kind of guidance counselor option, which is the educational counseling that the Department of Veterans Affairs offers, which is an option that not enough people are taking advantage of. In fact, less than 2 percent of all eligible veterans actually even applied for that service. So I think that’s something that is available that more people could be aware of. In addition, there’s a really interesting tool called Career Scope, which is on VA’s website. And actually, I think we have a slide on that as well, and that would be slide 6 in terms of some of the resources, and Career Scope lets you kind of play with the app and figure out what kind of career or occupation you might want to have, so it’s, it’s not an in-person tool, but it does provide assistance in thinking through what kind of career you might want to have, and so that’s something that’s also available to people through the VA that might be of assistance.>>We have another question here from Robert over e-mail, and Robert would like to know, will institutions soon be mandated to have a one-stop-shop rather than identify, or one point of contact to assist veterans and reservists with VA education benefits and tuition assistance, and is there anything else related to military or veterans benefits, and if you agree, what would be some of the positive impacts of such a program where you could get the sort of one-stop shopping?>>That’s, that’s a really interesting question. There is a comparison tool that the Department of Veterans Affairs recently created, and that’s also on slide 6, so you can link directly from that to there, and that’s a tool that allows people to compare different schools in terms of graduation rates, in terms of other information, and I think that might be more of the sort of one-stop shopping that would be helpful versus maybe kind of going to multiple sites to collect information, so that might be a really good resource.>>We have an interesting question here from George over e-mail, George would like to know if you could tell us the schools that were surveyed for this report, and also specifically which schools were sort of guilty of this nefarious or inappropriate recruitment practices?>>So we surveyed students who had received benefits, so they could have gone to any school that received benefits in terms of the GI Bill, so, we did not ask for the names of the schools. We wanted to make sure that we received very open and honest information from the students, and did not want them to feel like they had to somehow protect an institution. So that is not information that, that we gathered, but I, I do think it’s troubling when you have tens of thousands of students saying that they’ve experienced problems with recruitment, it is clearly not about a single school in that situation.>>I’m going to turn to a question now that came in over Twitter from Carlton Purvis, and Carlton would like to know, he says, it’s interesting that veterans are feeling targeted by schools, he feels like the opposite, that vets offices at schools are sometimes indifferent or even aloof, so really not that persistent contact [laughter] then, and so how does that sort of gel or mesh with what you heard from veterans?>>I think what’s happening is that some people are having more positive experiences and others are not. And there are a lot of veterans out there, as I said, there were 73,000 veterans that were receiving GI Bill benefits for the very first time in 2012, so you could really have a range of experiences. I think there’s also this issue, and we’ve reported on this previously, that some schools provide more support services for veterans than other schools do, and this is something that could be in the form of a lounge for veterans, or counseling for veterans, or maybe even sensitivity training for faculty so that they are sensitive to the experience of veterans coming back to school. So there is really a range in terms of support services provided to veterans, and I think it’s interesting because there are unique challenges that veterans face during this transition, and we actually have a slide, I believe it’s Figure 4, which lays out some of those challenges that veterans experience in that transition from military to civilian life. Many of these students are older, they may have families, they may also have service-connected disabilities coming from the military, and they’re really navigating, not just sort of their class work and figuring out, you know, where to sign up for courses and, you know, where to live, but they’re also trying to figure out how to do that with these additional challenges in place, and so I think that raises the importance of support services for these students.>>Well we have an interesting and related question from Mike over e-mail, and Mike would like to know, how are veterans making these decisions about where to go to school?>>That’s a really good question Mike. We found that they are relying on the communication that they receive from schools, so, they are looking to schools for information about the programs. They are also factoring in the cost of the programs, if their tuition is not fully covered, if, you know, they haven’t done the 36 months of service, then they might not have 4 years covered, and they’re also looking at location, that matters. They, you know, may want a school in a particular area. So that’s another factor that they’re considering.>>Well, let me ask you then, how are the factors that student veterans are considering possibly different from other students’?>>I think one of them is related to the idea of support services for veterans, so kind of going back to the Figure 1. I think that was one of the biggest items that people told us that they needed information on, because they felt like they didn’t know enough about support services for veterans at the campus. Something else that’s really unique, and you can see this again in this table here is the issue of their credits transferring. So they may have earned some credits in the military and they want to transfer those to college, that’s a very unique situation, that’s not applicable to civilian life. So that’s also very different. So there are some unique issues that affect the information that they’re interested in.>>I’m going to turn to a question from Zack over e-mail, and Zack would like to know, what’s VA doing to help veterans get information about schools?>>So VA has issued, or developed a complaint system that is up and running, and that, I believe, is Figure 5 as well. And you can see, you can submit a complaint, so that’s also helpful for people to be aware of, if anyone is out there in the audience today, and if you’ve had a negative experience, and you’d like to address it, please go forward and submit a complaint to the Department of Veterans Affairs. So that is a new online system that they have developed. They are also developing other systems to provide more information to students. One of our concerns though has been that a lot of these projects that they’ve been working on have come in late. And it’s a challenge because they have a lot on their plate at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but, at the same time, a lot of the planning has really been on a month-to-month basis and they’ve been missing deadlines. So we ended up making a recommendation that they do better project planning so that they could really ensure that the projects that they’re doing for veterans are done on time.>>We have a follow-up question from Robert who sent us an e-mail previously, and is actually a clarification on his earlier question, and it is, do you feel as though institutions, so colleges and campuses, will soon be required to serve or create a one-stop shop or physical location for veterans, military, reserves, rather than having multiple offices involved in the process of enrolling and continuing to utilize their education benefits?>>That, that’s a good question Robert. I’m not familiar with any such legislative proposals at this time. I know that there’s a lot of other stuff going on in terms of requirements on the Department of Veterans Affairs. They’ve needed to develop this complaint system. They’re also doing a feedback system, which I think will also incorporate positive reviews, so that, you know, you can kind of think of about, you know, what are people experiencing at schools and maybe see if people had some good experiences, and maybe look to that. So, the Department of Veterans Affairs is also doing the feedback system, and they’re also trying to provide better information to veterans for their comparison tools. So right now, the information on the comparison tool may provide sort of broader estimates about how much financial aid someone may be eligible for, and I think they’re looking to make it more personalized to the veterans. They’re also looking to provide more specific outcome data on student veterans at those campuses, so there are quite a few other initiatives ongoing that the department is currently doing in response to federal requirements to help make sure that students get the information that they need.>>Well we’ve got a few minutes left here, so I do want to make sure to ask about the recommendations from the report, you touched on one of them earlier, but could you tell us more about the recommendations that you made in this report?>>I think given the troubling findings, we really think that the Department of Veterans Affairs could do more to market its educational counseling service to veterans. I mean this is something that could clearly help veterans during this period. They’re getting a lot of hard-sell information from schools, many of them, like I said, may be first generation, and they could really use some assistance navigating this information. And this counseling is free and it is available one-on-one. So we think they could do more. And, for example, we have a slide, it’s slide 3, which is really interesting, because they have this service advertised, but they advertise it really late in the process. So, you think they would advertise the educational counseling under the exploring your career and, you know, comparing schools, and choosing a school, but you can see on this graphic that they don’t actually do that. They advertise it way late in terms of succeeding in school. And while counseling may be helpful to stay in school, we think that there’s a real opportunity to make sure people get counseling early and up front. And that’s something that’s not currently happening.>>Let me turn to a question from John over e-mail, and John would like to know, does your report suggest that schools should not be recruiting student veterans?>>No. [Laughter] We think it’s a good thing that, that student veterans go to school, and they rely on information and they find that communication very helpful. It, it’s good for them to know about the programs the like. I think, it’s just a question of having additional support to really kind of navigate the information that they are receiving, so that that is not the only source of information that they are getting, about a school and I think sources like the Department of Veterans Affairs’ comparison tool could be really helpful for people to compare schools so that they’re not reliant on a single recruiter who may not have their best interests in mind.>>Well, let me ask you, what do you see as the bottom line of this report and sort of the key takeaway for folks?>>I think the key takeaway for folks is that this is not an issue of, of, you know, just a handful of people having negative recruitment experiences. Although many have positive recruitment experiences, tens of thousands feel like they’re being excessively contacted, feel coerced, and feel like they’re being provided inaccurate information, and we feel like that needs to be addressed, and the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to proactively help these people by providing educational counseling.>>Well Melissa, thank you so much for joining us today and talking about this very important issue.>>Thanks so much for having me here Sarah.>>We were very happy to have you here. And thanks everybody who tuned in and joined us today, and thanks also for those of you who sent in your questions and comments, we really appreciate it. For more from the Government Accountability Office, you can stay connected with us online at We’re on Facebook at We’re on Twitter @usgao. We’re on LinkedIn, and we also have a blog, and that’s And you can subscribe to the blog right on the homepage there. 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