The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the educational experiences of millions of college students around the country, including for students who are US military veterans. Under normal circumstances, student veterans must overcome significant structural barriers to enroll and complete college: veteran students are more likely than civilian students to be Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the first in their families to go to college, and have families of their own. Students with these attributes disproportionately attend institutions where they are less likely to graduate and more likely to take on debt. And while the GI Bill provides generous funding for postsecondary education, the complexity of the program’s administration can create unexpected challenges that can impede veterans’ progress to a degree. 

During a global pandemic and economic recession, these structural barriers and challenges are magnified. Below, we outline four factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic that, without careful attention, may worsen the educational experiences and outcomes of student veterans.

The shift to online courses has increased the complexity and uncertainty of GI Bill funding

Even in the absence of a global pandemic, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides generous postsecondary educational benefits for US military veterans and their dependents, is administratively complex. Many colleges and universities cite the complexity of veterans’ educational benefits as a major challenge to supporting US military veterans once they are enrolled. And, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the entity responsible for administering those benefits, has a recent history of failing to provide veterans with timely payments of the benefits they deserve.

This complexity has real consequences for student veterans’ educational outcomes: late GI bill payments from the VA and poor coordination of GI Bill benefits across college departments can significantly disrupt student veterans’ academic progress and their ability to meet their basic needs. Educational disruptions due to COVID-19 have increased the complexity and uncertainty of GI Bill funding which may hinder student veterans’ educational outcomes:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic led colleges and universities around the country to close campuses and shift to online instruction. These actions, while necessary, compromised student veterans’ housing allowances and VA work study payments, each of which require eligible students to be enrolled in in-person courses. As a result, Congress enacted two bills, (S.503 and H.R.6322), to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), through December 21, 2020, to continue to pay the same level of benefits (i.e., housing allowance and work-study payments) to students whose courses shifted online. If courses remain online beyond December 2020, additional legislation will be needed, but it is also possible that the uncertainty may have already impacted students’ choices about pursuing their academic goals and may continue to impact those choices in the fall.
  • Like many Americans, the financial or employment circumstances of student veterans may have significantly changed in the past few months. These changing circumstances will understandably have an impact on veteran students’ academic progress, which could, in turn, impact their GI Bill benefits. (Typically, withdrawing from courses results in a benefit reduction). Congress addressed this possibility in House bill, H.R. 6322, which extends or restores benefits if student veterans withdraw from courses due to COVID-19 through December 2020. The administration of these restorations or extensions, however, will likely be difficult and the process and timeline uncertain. Given past difficulties with benefits administration, student veterans may have already made (or will make) educational decisions based on incomplete or imperfect information.
  • The US Department of Education issued formal guidance that states that only students who are eligible for Title IV federal financial aid are eligible to receive the emergency grant aid set aside for students in the CARES Act. While most student veterans are eligible for Title IV aid, GI Bill benefits are generous enough that they may not require any Title IV federal financial aid to pay for college and therefore, do not file a FAFSA. If colleges or universities use a student’s FAFSA to determine eligibility for emergency grant aid, then student veterans may miss out on those grants, despite having significant financial need. 

The struggling economy and campus closures have heightened the competing priorities of student veterans

Student veterans are more likely than their non-veteran/civilian peers to be older than age 25 and married with children, so it is no surprise that they report spending more time on childcare and employment. Under normal circumstances, these responsibilities make college progression more challenging. During a time of historic unemployment and shuttered childcare facilities, student veterans are understandably at a greater risk of dropping out. Recent surveys confirm the increased pressures they are facing: In one survey, nearly 74 percent of student veterans who responded were concerned about how the pandemic will affect their educational goals. 

Student veterans are also experiencing the financial effects of a disrupted economy: a third of respondents reported a reduction in working hours and nearly 20 percent reported already losing pay or expecting to lose pay in the future. In addition, more than 20 percent of respondents were extremely concerned about buying groceries and paying for their mortgage or rent in the next two weeks. These challenges are further compounded for students who are active-duty, many of whom were called to serve in response to the pandemic, for duties like setting up coronavirus testing sites.

Inadequate federal investment in community colleges and inefficient transfer pathways will impede student veteran success

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely depleted community college revenues, and the methodology for allocating federal CARES Act funds resulted in community colleges and their students receiving a disproportionately small share of the available funds. The increased needs of community colleges and the lack of federal investment and support has a significant impact on student veterans, many of whom begin their postsecondary career in community colleges. 

Enrollment in community colleges is expected to increase in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which could augment the structural barriers that impede successful progress through community college, transfer to a four-year institution, and earn a bachelor’s degree. Eighty percent of students who enroll in community college plan to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree, but many do not. And, recent estimates suggest that, when they do transfer to a four-year institution, community college students lose almost half of their credits. Inefficient transfer pathways have financial consequences for all students, especially student veterans, who are only eligible for 36 months of GI Bill payments.

Student veterans are the target of predatory marketing practices

Student veterans are disproportionately enrolled in for-profit institutions, which, on average, have significantly lower graduation rates than public or private non-profit colleges and universities. In some cases, student veterans seek out for-profit institutions because they offer specific, high-demand programs or can accommodate flexible schedules or modalities. In other cases, though, student veterans are the target of aggressive and predatory marketing and enrollment tactics because for-profit institutions benefit from a loophole to the 90/10 rule that designates GI Bill funds as a private source rather than a federal source of revenue. 

After the 2008 Great Recession and in response to the 2009 passage of the post-9/11 GI Bill, for-profit institutions increasingly targeted student veterans, which led to a rapid increase in their enrollment. Some student veterans advocates are concerned that the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 could lead to a repeat: more student veterans using their GI Bill benefits to enroll in for-profit institutions where their chance of graduating or successfully transferring is very small. 

The challenges outlined here are but a few of the myriad challenges that student veterans face, and there are likely to be new and different challenges to come. Next week, we’re hosting a virtual discussion group that will bring together representatives from 20 colleges and universities to share their insights about the needs of student veterans and the ways in which they are meeting those needs. We’re looking forward to sharing some of those insights and practices on this blog in the coming weeks.