Supporting Veterans with Disabilities Pursuing a Postsecondary Education

By:  Walter Ochinko

May 2020

This week we published a new report on the impact of disability on first-time student veterans’ pursuit of a postsecondary credential. Our findings raise the question “What can policy makers do to help close the ‘success’ gap for veterans using the GI Bill?”

What the Data Shows about the Impact of Disabilities

The prevalence of disabilities among veterans pursuing a postsecondary degree (33 percent) is more than double that of a comparable group of non-veterans (15 percent) who are also financially independent of their parents.[1] Just over half of veterans reporting a disability indicated they had non-physical impairments, including mental health challenges such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although the Education Department’s data do not indicate if the disability is service-related, a recent report noted that veterans have a higher rate of disability than non-veterans, which results in lower labor force participation.

Our research found:

  • Compared to non-disabled veterans who began school for the first time in 2011, those who reported having a disability were more likely to be enrolled in associate degree programs rather than bachelor’s degree programs and to have left school without a degree by 2017; they were also less likely to have completed their degree.
  • Compared to non-veterans with a disability, veterans who reported having a disability were more likely to stay enrolled in school but were more likely to have earned a certificate than an associate’s degree. Both cohorts earned bachelor’s degrees at similar rates.
  • Student veterans with a disability delayed their first postsecondary enrollment for an average of about 9 years after high school graduation and discharge from the military.

Policies to Help Address Outcome Disparities for Veterans with Disabilities

Policymakers should consider several initiatives to help boost the postsecondary success of veterans who report having a disability:

Improve the Vocational Rehabilitation and Education program (VR&E).

VR&E provides veterans and servicemembers who have a service-connected disability with the support they need to “prepare for, obtain, and maintain suitable employment.”[2] Qualified veterans may apply for either vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits or for education/career counseling. In addition, VR&E offers education and career counseling to GI Bill eligible veterans after separation as well as to current beneficiaries.

Our June 2019 testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee noted concerns about high workloads for Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors and inconsistency in the advice provided to veterans by counselors. Policymakers should advocate for improvements to the VR&E program, including (1) lowering the current veteran to VR&E counselor ratio (its currently 125 to 1) given the labor intensive nature of providing meaningful support to those using vocational rehabilitation; (2) greater VA transparency about veterans’ using VR&E to pursue a postsecondary education or seeking counseling, such as by periodically reporting the number of veterans with disabilities who are currently pursuing a credential, the progress they are making toward earning a credential, the level of postsecondary education they are pursuing, and the number of beneficiaries who are simply seeking and obtaining counseling; and (3) implementing consistent standards for VR&E counselors so that veterans receive uniform guidance.

Given our findings that disabled veterans are more likely than non-disabled veterans to be enrolled in associate degree programs rather than bachelor’s degree programs, Voc Rehab Counselors should consistently encourage veterans to enroll in the highest-quality schools and in degree programs that offer the best long-term return-on-investment. This is important because the lifetime earnings of a bachelor’s degree are about $550,000 higher than the lifetime earnings of an associate’s degree.[3]

Additionally, policymakers should consider increasing the current housing allowance for VR&E to the same amount GI Bill beneficiaries receive. Right now, the monthly housing allowance for VR&E students is significantly less than what GI Bill beneficiaries receive and can impede the veteran’s ability to finish their program of study.

Increase support services for veterans with disabilities both on-campus and for those pursuing degrees online.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) “VetSuccess on Campus” (VSOC) program has placed the department’s own VR&E counselors on 104 college campuses to help veterans achieve their academic and career goals. The program has barely grown since 2014 when 94 schools had VSOC counselors.[4] According to VA, the objective of VSOC is to help veterans and eligible family members who are using the GI Bill to succeed and thrive through a coordinated delivery of on-campus benefits assistance and counseling, leading to completion of their education and preparing them to enter the labor market in viable careers. VSOC is a small step in the right direction but remains too small compared to the need. 0nly 6 of the 20 schools serving the most GI Bill beneficiaries had VSOC counselors. These 20 schools enrolled 16 percent (almost 150,000) of GI Bill beneficiaries in 2018.

Schools themselves should also step up to the plate. Executive Order 13607 directed schools enrolling veterans to have a dedicated point of contact “for academic and financial advising (including access to disability counseling) to assist servicemember and veteran students and their families with the successful completion of their studies and with their job searches.” Schools may have a veteran point of contact, but too often that contact may consist of a single individual with limited availability because “veteran services” is assigned as an additional duty. And the contact is likely to be someone in the college’s registrar or bursars office who is focused on processing VA paperwork and is not truly offering support to student veterans. VA should encourage schools to dedicate a point of contact whose primary role is not focused on processing paperwork and certifying students but is instead focused on student support. VA should also publish the best practices of institutions that provide effective counseling. In addition, Congress should request a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office into how dedicated student veteran counselors can best serve those who are enrolled in exclusively online programs.

Make a mandatory exception to the 15-year time limit on using the Post-9/11 GI Bill for veterans with a disability rating who are likely to have delayed their first postsecondary enrollment.

The Forever GI Bill eliminated the 15-year time limit for veterans to begin using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. However, this relief is limited to those who leave active duty after January 1, 2013 and does not include VR&E students. As our report points out, veterans with a disability delay their first postsecondary enrollment for an average of about 9 years. Congress should mandate an exception for veterans with a service-connected disability of at least 20 percent and should remove the delimiting date for VR&E.

[1]Our analysis used survey data from Beginning Postsecondary Students, a longitudinal survey conducted by the Department of Education from 2011-12 through 2016-17.

[2]U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Longitudinal Study (P.L. 110-389, Sec. 334): Annual Report 2018 for FY 2017.

[3] See Carnevale,  Anthony P., Stephen J. Rose, and Ban Cheah. The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, and Lifetime Earnings. Washington, D.C.: The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

[4]According to a 2014 GAO report, fewer than 2 percent of eligible veterans applied for educational counseling services in Fiscal Years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Walter Ochinko is Research Director at Veterans Education Success