Home Academic information Higher education: VA could improve support for veterans pursuing STEM degrees

Higher education: VA could improve support for veterans pursuing STEM degrees

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What the GAO found

More than 130,000 veterans have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to earn a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degree from the 2019-2021 school years. About 3,500 veterans have also used the scholarship program Edith Nourse Rogers STEM to continue pursuing these degrees after exhausting their post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. The majority of these veterans were pursuing studies in computer science, health professions or engineering (see figure).

STEM Degree Programs for Veterans Using the GI Bill Post-9/11 or Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship, 2018-19 to 2020-21 Academic Years

Veteran students pursuing a STEM degree may face several challenges earning a degree, according to GAO interviews and literature research. Some of these challenges are not unique to veteran students, such as the rigor and sequence of STEM courses and the balance between academics and work and family responsibilities. Other challenges are more specific to veterans. While veterans bring strengths, such as discipline, some also have physical or mental conditions from their military service that can affect their academic progress, according to college officials interviewed by GAO.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not communicate clearly with veterans about their Rogers STEM scholarship applications or collect and use the data necessary to understand application rejection trends. Specifically:

  • Some of VA’s letters to veterans lack clear information about their requests and what to do next. These letters may confuse veterans about how to get the scholarship, according to GAO’s analysis of the letters and interviews with veterans. Without clearer communication, veterans may not fully understand the program, whether they are eligible, or how to apply for funds.
  • GAO’s analysis of VA data shows the agency denied 63 percent of applications in the program’s first 3 fiscal years. This analysis also shows that VA turned down African American or Black applicants and female applicants at higher rates than white and male applicants. However, VA does not collect the data it needs to understand why it turns down more than half of all applicants. Additionally, VA has yet to perform analyzes to understand disparities in refusal rates. Without additional data collection and analysis, VA is unable to take informed action to better manage the program and address these disparities, if needed.

Why GAO Did This Study

Veterans who received technical training in the military may be well suited to pursue STEM studies. To help pay for these degrees, veterans can use the Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits and the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship. The scholarship provides up to 9 months of education benefits (not to exceed $30,000) to veterans who apply and qualify. Two statutes included provisions for the GAO to review how these programs support veterans pursuing STEM education.

This report examines (1) the extent to which veterans pursue STEM education using the benefits of VA education, (2) the challenges these veterans face in earning a STEM degree, and (3) how VA administers the Rogers STEM scholarship. The GAO analyzed VA administrative data and interviewed veteran service organization and VA officials, as well as government officials and student veterans at some colleges. GAO randomly selected five colleges for interviews from a list of 20 colleges with the most Rogers STEM Scholars. GAO also reviewed relevant literature and VA documents and processes.