Wounded Warrior Project
Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and members of the Subcommittee:
Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) welcomes this opportunity to share an important perspective on H.R.4057 and is pleased to offer our views on this legislation. This bill would require VA to develop a comprehensive policy to ensure better outreach and greater transparency by providing information on institutions of higher learning to veterans who consider accessing their educational benefits. Consistent with the important goal of establishing a comprehensive policy to foster transparency relating to veterans’ higher education options, we recommend that the bill be revised, as discussed below, to help ensure that post 9-11 warriors gain access to additional information critical to their academic success.
As an organization dedicated to honoring and empowering Wounded Warriors, and appreciative of the critical importance of education in helping warriors achieve their goals, WWP welcomes this Committee's consideration of H.R. 4057 and the importance of developing more information to assist veterans in using their education benefits.
The post-9/11 GI bill plays a vital role in enabling access to higher education for veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq to advance their education, and achieve economic empowerment, and veterans are availing themselves of that valuable benefit. The FY 2013 budget projects post-9/11 expenditures will approach $10 billion. A 2010 RAND study focused on veterans’ experience using the post-9/11 GI bill found that close to a quarter of surveyed students identified the post-9/11 GI bill benefits as a major aspect of their decision to enroll in higher education. While institutions of higher education receive substantial federal monies for their warrior populations, who often face injuries that hinder their academic success, the availability of specialized services to support those veterans has not kept pace with the program’s growth.
As returning veterans, and particularly Wounded Warriors, begin to make the often difficult transition from military service, the generous benefits available under the post 9/11 GI Bill offer a promising path to employment and new careers opportunities and advancement. With the increasingly large number of veterans taking advantage of their educational benefits, VA should be establishing metrics to measure veterans’ success and to track the availability of appropriate campus-based support.
In our experience, the road to higher education, and to making informed choices among often wide-ranging options, can be very difficult to navigate. For those without counseling options such as those provided through VA's vocational rehabilitation program, there may be little to guide the individual in making informed choices, particularly as it relates to the extent of pertinent support a school provides veterans. Even the most careful researcher would have great difficulty identifying the kinds and levels of support at most institutions. Student-veterans themselves are often uncertain of what specialized services, if any, are available. In a survey of over 500 WWP alumni who have enrolled in courses of higher education, more than 44% indicated that they were unsure if their campus had a dedicated disability services support staff member, over 55% were unsure if mental health services were offered on campus, and over a quarter of respondents did not know if the campus offered any type of academic support services such as tutoring. Veterans who may know of services they should be able to access on campuses often have trouble navigating the process of getting those benefits and lack a clear understanding of where to go for information.
The 2010 RAND study found that over 66% of veterans who were able to access a campus veterans program office found that resource to be “quite helpful” or “extremely helpful” in pursuing their academic goals compared with only approximately 29% of respondents rating the VA phone hotline the same way. These data underscore how important campus investment and involvement with their student veteran population really is. We believe VA must do more to require institutional recipients of post-9/11 GI bill funds to make such services available to the student-veterans who enroll and ensure that information is easily accessible so that warriors are able to make informed decisions before applying and enrolling.
We applaud the principle underlying H.R. 4057 that veterans availing themselves of benefits under the GI bill should have ready access to relevant information. This is an important starting point, but, as drafted, the measure falls short of ensuring that its impact would address in a systematic manner the critical issues post-9/11 warriors face. As more and more veterans enroll in institutions of higher education, it is important that VA collect pertinent – and accurate – data that is easily accessible to student-veterans. Because campus-based support services must be tailored to meet warrior-specific injuries and academic needs, we recommend that H.R. 4057 be amended to include language that would make modest but important improvements, specifically to require institutions of higher education to provide information on the following:
1. The size of their student-veteran population and student-veteran academic performance and retention and graduation rates; and
2. The specific support services dedicated, and available to, student-veterans at such institution (and, as pertinent, at each campus of such institution).
While we also appreciate the bill’s effort to develop information on student-outreach, we recommend revising the language in new section 3698(b)(5) that calls on VA to identify “the most effective way” to inform veterans of their educational benefits and post-secondary educational opportunities. Given the range of individual backgrounds and disabilities among warriors pursuing higher education, outreach strategies should be multi-faceted. We strongly advise against a one-size-fits-all approach, and recommend accordingly that the language be revised to refer to “effective ways” in lieu of “the most effective way” to conduct outreach. In essence, VA should be encouraged to pursue wide-ranging approaches to reach out to and engage veterans.
We would be pleased to work with the Committee to draft language in advance of any markup to address the important issues discussed above. With such changes, WWP would be pleased to enthusiastically support H.R. 4057.