When Shannon Travis was stationed at Balad Air Base in Iraq for 14 months, one of her jobs was refueling helicopters. The shifts were long, and when there were no helicopters, she and her team had hours of downtime. They whittled away the time playing cards, watching TV, and just hanging out.
With all that unstructured time, Travis started taking online courses toward the college degree she hoped to one day earn, knocking out prerequisites such as English and biology. “I was the only one [in my unit] taking classes,” she laughs. “They all made fun of me for it.”
Travis’s stint in Iraq ended in 2008, and after a few major life changes, she is now a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve and a senior at McDaniel College, a private four-year college in rural Maryland. Her husband, Patrick Robbins, who is also a veteran and whom she met while stationed in Germany, graduated from McDaniel in 2015.
When Travis and Robbins returned to the United States in 2010, they joined the Army Reserve and started taking classes at Carroll Community College in Maryland. Travis dreamed of becoming a Foreign Service officer, so she set her sights on transferring to American, George Washington, or Georgetown universities, with their renowned international relations programs.
She was also curious about McDaniel, which was just up the road in Westminster. “I heard a lot of good things from the community college about McDaniel, so I went to the political-science department and I talked to the academic dean,” Travis says. Soon, she was sold on the school’s welcoming environment and is now caught up in what she calls the “political-science bubble” on campus.
Her studies were interrupted in 2014 when she was called overseas to serve as a force protector in Afghanistan, an experience that offered very different opportunities from her time in Balad. She acted as a liaison with local communities, even learning to speak some Dari, the local language. “It’s taking me longer to get my degree, but I think Afghanistan also brought a lot of experience,” she says.
The college experience that Travis and Robbins received was made possible with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which offers service members and their families some of the most comprehensive and generous benefits yet since the original iteration of the GI Bill. Under the Yellow Ribbon Program of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, military members can have up to $21,084.89 of their tuition and fees at a private college or international school covered annually. Travis says that she would encourage all veterans or service members eligible for the GI Bill to make use of it, saying, “If they don’t use it, they’re missing out on so, so much.”
The original GI Bill, or the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” as it is formally known, transformed American life. Millions of soldiers returning from World War II were given access to low-cost mortgages to buy homes, loans to start businesses, and cash payments to cover tuition and living expenses while attending university, high school, or vocational programs.
Historians credit the GI Bill with helping to create the “Greatest Generation,” sending millions to college who otherwise would not be able to afford it. That surge in college and degree attainment helped create what became the modern middle class. Many colleges doubled in size as a result. Elite institutions that were formerly the sole province of the wealthy started to open their doors to a more economically-diverse student body.
At the turn of the century, approximately six decades after the original GI Bill was signed, benefits had not kept pace with the rising costs of going to college. In 1985, the GI Bill was updated, becoming the Montgomery GI Bill. Under that guise, the bill offered stipends for up to 36 months to individuals who had completed active-duty service of three years or more. As of 2007, the maximum amount awarded was a little over $1,000 a month.
‘Dollar Signs in Uniform’: Why For-Profit Colleges Target Veterans
“If you look at the impact of the Montgomery GI Bill broadly, it dramatically changed our country in terms of its economic impact and the average educational-attainment level of citizens,” says Jennifer Taylor, an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University. “I think that the Post-9/11 GI Bill will have the same impact because we’re talking about similar numbers in terms of the people eligible for benefits.”
While the Post-9/11 GI Bill has been transformative for many, the billions of dollars in funding have proved to be too tempting for some unscrupulous actors. Over the years, a number of for-profit colleges have cashed in on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, aggressively recruiting military-service members and veterans. Some for-profits offered unaccredited degrees, leaving graduates with debt but no improved job prospects.
Veterans are particularly attractive to for-profits because of a loophole in the 90/10 rule, which requires that institutions derive no more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal college aid. The GI Bill is exempt from that rule, allowing institutions to target veterans.
The now-defunct Corinthian College, Inc. is one example of the sort of institution that targeted veterans. A Senate HELP Committee report found that Corinthian was one of the top recipients of Post-9/11 GI Bill funds, receiving $186 million from 2009 to 2013. Corinthian is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit from the California Attorney General’s office, which alleges that the company used misleading recruitment techniques, such as including the official seals of the branches of the U.S. military in its advertising materials for military members.
After a series of investigations and a financial collapse when the U.S. Department of Education withheld federal funds, Corinthian finally closed its doors in April 2015. The fate of its last 16,000 students and the student-loan debt that many now carry is still being resolved.
Earlier this summer, an investigation from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that as many as 2,000 unaccredited institutions received $260 million of GI Bill funds since 2009. In mid-September, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic representative from Connecticut., and Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican representative from North Carolina, introduced the Career-Ready Student Veterans Act of 2015, which would prevent Post-9/11 GI Bill funds from being used at unaccredited institutions.
This article appears courtesy of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.