MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - University of Minnesota student Zac Bair enlisted in the U.S. Army to help pay for college. After three deployments in Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment and his "fair share" of combat, Bair was honorably discharged. Soon after, he enrolled at the University.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill completely covered his tuition and provided a $1,000 yearly stipend for books and an allowance for living costs. Without GI benefits, Bair said, he would likely be either working low-end jobs, living with his family, homeless or back in the military.
"It's been a huge load off my shoulders," he said, as he sets his sights on becoming a high school biology teacher.
Bair is among 1 million students aided in their academic ventures by the 2008 GI Bill, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The U.S. has spent more than $30 billion in financial aid since 2009 for veterans pursuing college degrees. But when it comes to finding out whether those students graduate, answers can be hard to find.
At the University of Minnesota, data compiled at the request of the Minnesota Daily (http://mndaily.vetacademics.org/ ) showed the four-year graduation rate for student veterans has fallen, while the retention rate has jumped - suggesting that many are simply taking longer to graduate.
This falls in line with national numbers released last week, offering the most comprehensive look so far at veteran academic success. The Million Records Project, released by Student Veterans of America, shows about half of student veterans are graduating with degrees, and many are taking longer than the traditional four years to finish school - on average, veterans take about six years to complete a bachelor's degree.
"Veterans don't have a linear path to a degree," said Dr. Chris Cate, vice president of research for Student Veterans of America.
Student veterans may have jobs, families or military obligations, in addition to the challenges that come from having spent time on the battlefield. Any of these can interrupt or lengthen their educational journeys, making it difficult to track their progress. This means that, as a group of students who often need the most support - and whose education is publicly funded - they can fall through the cracks.
As the first Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries started to graduate, lawmakers, media outlets, student advocacy groups and others have called for results on whether the money is serving its purpose by helping student veterans earn college degrees.
Within the Million Records Project study sample, 51.7 percent of student veterans earned a college degree or certificate, numbers higher than previously reported by various media outlets, but lower than recent estimates of nearly 70 percent.
Passed in 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill expanded educational benefits for military veterans serving after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The bill allows the federal government to pay tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and book stipends. The Montgomery GI Bill and the Minnesota GI Bill also provide support to active duty members and Minnesota veterans, respectively. In Minnesota, there are about 18,800 veteran students across 181 schools, according to News21 research, and more than $244.5 million awarded in GI Bill funds.
The Million Records study examined veterans using government education benefits, including a million Montgomery GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries. After excluding those still in school, the study found after sifting through 788,915 records that about 15 percent of beneficiaries got associate's degrees, about 24 percent attained bachelor's and about 8 percent got master's.
But elsewhere, information available about veteran students is less consistent.
The University does not currently have a comprehensive tracking system in place for veteran graduation and retention rates, but Jennifer Peterson, assistant director of University Veterans Services, said the office is trying to better grasp the data.
The Minnesota Daily requested information from all Big Ten schools, most of which didn't start tracking veterans as a population until the past few years, while others had very little data readily available and had to compile it.
Other Big Ten schools that shared the most detailed data were the University of Illinois, Penn State, the University of Iowa and Purdue University, and most painted a general picture of veteran success.
Tracking veteran students presents a number of challenges for universities, and there is no uniform method. The University of Minnesota's pool includes those who self-identify and those receiving GI Bill benefits, so some may not be counted at all. GI Bill beneficiaries aren't confined to veterans themselves either and can include family members and other dependents.
Most veterans are in categories often overlooked by university research and policies: those of nontraditional age, those going to school part time and those with mixed enrollment.
Additionally, GI Bill benefits have a 36-month limit. Because the VA uses financial awards for tracking purposes, Cate said, student veterans whose benefits run out before they graduate are counted as not finishing at all.
"There's a difference between falling off the grid and quitting academia," Cate said.
Bair said while the GI Bill's time limit helps keep him focused on graduating within four years, it may be a downside to a majority of his friends who have changed majors during their college careers.
"There's not really wiggle room," he said.
Tours of duty interrupt or halt academic careers, too. Many reservists were called up to serve in Middle Eastern wars between 2004 and 2009, Cate said, and they could have lost all their credits. Since 2007, at least 45 active-duty University students interrupted their education to serve military tours of duty, according to One Stop, though the numbers only represent those who reported their departure to advisers and received a tuition refund.
Tracking how many veterans actually drop out can also be difficult.
"The problem is when people drop out, they do it very quietly and just disappear," said Andrew Friedrichs, treasurer of the Student Veterans Association. "They don't go around telling everyone."
Nationally, there has been a push for more comprehensive and uniform tracking and transparency regarding educational services for veterans. In 2012, Congress passed the Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act, requiring colleges to share more information about how they serve veterans, mostly in an effort to combat misleading, targeted marketing by for-profit colleges. Recently, proposed legislation that would require the VA to track veteran graduation rates died in House committee.
"Inconsistent methods of collecting such information has led to confusion about the completion rates of student veterans in higher education," the Million Records Project report said, "and without strong, empirical data, the uncertainty will persist."
Information from: The Minnesota Daily, http://www.mndaily.com/