VA Education Benefits:
VA Should Strengthen Its Efforts to Help Veterans Make Informed Education Choices
GAO-14-324: Published: May 13, 2014. Publicly Released: May 13, 2014.
What GAO Found
Selected schools used various practices, from mass advertising to individual outreach, to recruit and inform prospective student veterans. Eight of nine schools GAO interviewed reported advertising in print or online media dedicated to military audiences. Most of the nine schools contacted veterans directly by phone or email, sometimes with military-focused recruiters, to provide information on benefits or services or to highlight the school as “military-friendly.” Further, 29 of the 30 school websites GAO reviewed included a section specifically for veterans, some of which were featured prominently on the home page.
Many surveyed veterans reported that school communication was important in selecting a school; however, nearly 23 percent (about 15,200 veterans when generalized nationally) reported excessive contacts from schools and an estimated 10 percent (about 6,900 veterans nationwide) said they felt pressure to enroll. In addition, while most surveyed veterans reported receiving generally accurate information from their school, about 23 percent (about 16,500 veterans nationwide) reported receiving some information they viewed as inaccurate, such as estimated student loan debt. Many veterans also wanted more information from their schools, such as on veteran support services (see figure below). Inaccurate or incomplete information can lead veterans to choose schools that do not meet their needs and exhaust their benefits before achieving their goals. Veteran and higher education groups said that greater access to independent and objective advice would help veterans with their education choices.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has taken steps to inform and protect student veterans, but some efforts have been insufficient. VA is developing tools to help veterans understand their education benefits and compare information on schools. VA has also taken some action to improve veterans' awareness of its free education counseling services, as required by law, but its efforts to expand awareness among prospective students and ease the application process have been limited. At the same time, almost half of surveyed veterans were not aware of VA's counseling when considering schools. To help identify misleading or aggressive recruiting, VA has launched a new complaint system, created a risk-based approach to oversee schools, and taken other steps. While VA has made some progress implementing federally required initiatives, its project planning has lacked realistic timelines and goals—in contrast to sound planning practices. As a result, Congress and others lack information on VA's progress implementing planned initiatives to protect and inform student veterans.
Why GAO Did This Study
In fiscal year 2013, VA provided over $12 billion in benefits for veterans' postsecondary education; however, questions have been raised as to whether some schools are receiving these funds as a result of inappropriate recruiting practices. GAO was asked to examine issues related to schools' recruitment of veterans. This report examines (1) how selected schools recruit veterans, (2) veterans' school search and recruiting experiences, and (3) VA's actions to help veterans make informed decisions and to identify inappropriate recruiting practices.
For the first question, GAO interviewed officials from 9 schools and reviewed websites of 30 additional schools; both groups were selected for variation in sector (public, nonprofit, and for-profit) and other criteria. For the second question, GAO surveyed a nationally representative group of student veterans, producing results generalizable to the student veteran population. For the third question, GAO reviewed relevant federal requirements and agency documents and interviewed agency officials. GAO also spoke with veteran and higher education organizations.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that VA improve outreach and accessibility of its educational counseling services and more consistently develop and communicate realistic timelines as it implements initiatives based on federal requirements. VA agreed with GAO's recommendations and noted its current efforts to improve its outreach and planning efforts. The Department of Education had no comments on our findings or recommendations.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: VA has taken steps and is planning additional work to improve the accessibility and usefulness of its educational counseling services, especially for prospective student veterans. Specifically, VA has incorporated an online application and some additional information about educational counseling on its website. However, VA is in the process of transitioning to a new website, vets.gov, which is not yet fully operational. Additionally, the current pathway within that website for prospective student veterans to learn about educational counseling is not completely clear, and VA officials noted that they are working on specific sequencing for the new website to present that information. VA has estimated that the new website will be fully operational by the end of March 2017. At that time, GAO will review the new website to make sure that prospective student veterans who want help on how to use their education benefits effectively have an easy-to-follow pathway to access information explaining VA's educational counseling services and the different ways to apply for these services.
Recommendation: To ensure that veterans' education benefits are used effectively, the Secretary of VA should take additional steps to improve the outreach, accessibility, and usefulness of its educational counseling services, particularly for prospective student veterans, for example by (1) featuring these services in resources intended for prospective students veterans; (2) prioritizing efforts to enable veterans to apply for educational counseling online; and (3) considering cost-effective ways to gather more information on applicants, users, and key program areas (such as the timeliness of service) to better identify service needs or gaps and to improve the effectiveness of future outreach.
Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: VA improved the development, documentation, and communication of timelines and goals for its initiatives under Executive Order 13607 (EO) and Public Law 112-249 (PL) in two ways. First, VA's Education Services and Chief Technology Officer created an implementation plan that identified activities needed to meet VA's obligations for the GI Bill Comparison Tool. Second, officials communicated progress toward VA's goals and any changes in related timeframes through weekly and monthly meetings with internal and external stakeholders. According to officials, VA has met its key obligations under the EO and PL and has no major efforts remaining that require significant planning, although it is continuing to enhance the functionality of both the GI Bill Comparison Tool and GI Bill Feedback System. Going forward, GAO encourages VA to continue to implement good planning practices in its ongoing efforts to enhance the functionality of the Comparison Tool and GI Bill Feedback systems, as well as any future efforts to improve information resources for student veterans.
Recommendation: To ensure that veterans' education benefits are used effectively, the Secretary of VA should more consistently develop, document, and communicate realistic timelines and goals for implementing VA initiatives based on federal requirements by identifying specific activities needed to achieve goals and associated implementation timelines, as well as resource issues or potential internal or external risks that may affect timing.
Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs