It’s not your grandfather’s GI Bill

In my early 20’s, I took some time after college to live in Puerto Rico. A buddy and me signed a four month lease on a little studio two blocks from the beach, and we left the 48 contiguous in early November, dreaming of Hunter Thompson and days made up of surfing, writing and boozing.

Our long vacation went mostly to plan and I left in late February with $300 to my name.

Among many of the visitors that came to stay at our palace near the beach was Bob’s sister. Bob’s sister was 28, had three kids and a husband in the service. She was friendly, and out of the myriad friends and friends-of-friends who came to visit, she was the lowest maintenance, a welcomed trait during an island getaway.

One night, in particular, she raised her voice.

“I almost forgot,” she said. “I have to take a test for school.”

For the next hour, I watched as the sister worked on her small laptop computer to complete a quiz. She talked with us. She picked at her food. And when she finished, she slammed her laptop down and said, “I can’t wait to graduate” and walked to the fridge for a refill of rum punch.

Bob’s sister is one out of millions of military members or their spouses, that use benefits to attend college. A few months after the trip, she successfully completed school at the for-profit University of Phoenix, a largely online college that, in 2010, had as many as 600,000 students enrolled. But, it turns out, Bob’s sister’s completion of college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill might not have been as easy as she made it look from her impromptu beachside classroom.

Based on recent claims of predatory practices at some for-profit colleges and the tribulations of adjusting from military life to student life, GI Bill users face a number of difficulties in search of a degree.

More than 700,000 veterans enrolled in school on the GI Bill since 2008. The education and training program has sent $17.2  billion to veterans in school since 2001.


Through its Veterans Center and a military program on Joint-Base Lewis McChord, Pierce College in Tacoma enrolled 380 active duty members and veterans in a variety of courses for this year’s summer quarter.

Vickie Bell is a program assistant with Veterans Center for Pierce. Among the hundreds of service members that come through the Veterans Center, Bell said the single strongest piece of advice she can give anybody signing up to use the GI Bill is for them to do “research.” Research the classes you want to take, where you want to go to school and what you want to do in your career outside of the military.

“What classes to take, what program they are interested in are huge and difficult questions to navigate,” Bell said.

Naturally, Bell said one of the first places prospective students turn to for answers is the internet. But the internet doesn’t always offer impartial help.

The website, not the government’s official, was recently shut down and ordered to pay $2.5 million for predatory practices against thousands of service members looking for ways to jumpstart their GI benefits.

According to a report published by National Public Radio, was a commercial site run by a marketing company called QuinStreet. QuinStreet operated as a “lead generator,” taking in the forms prospective students would fill out and selling them to for-profit colleges and universities. Called a ‘hook’ to lead students towards potential schools, one student interviewed in the NPR story said he received as many as 70 phone calls and well over 300 emails in the days following his use of the site.

After an investigation led by Kentucky’s Attorney General Jack Conway shut down, sending all new visitors to the official government site, the number one vehicle for recruiting GI Bill users stopped. But the predatory nature of for-profit colleges hasn’t necessarily followed suit. According to a press release issued from Kentucky’s Attorney General, these colleges are “perhaps more interested in getting their hands on the federal benefits than in educating our soldiers and their families.”

A quick internet search for “for-profit colleges” compiles a list of more than 200 schools, many of which are owned by parent companies with names such as the Apollo Group and Career Education Corporation. Many have had a hard time placing students into jobs after graduation, and students often leave with a large degree of debt.

And while many students like Bob’s sister, with a degree from Phoenix, a school that after coming under fire for predatory practices in 2010 has instituted new enrolling and recruiter policies, succeed in finishing online for-profit schools, it’s clear they are certainly not for everyone, Bell said.

“Some have tried online, and they are just not the online type of student,” she said. “Many others like the traditional courses.”


Matt Zimmerman, a Veteran’s Coordinator with Washington State University, says not too many of the 822 veterans, including 360 at the main campus in Pullman, Wash., tried out online-only classes before attending WSU. In fact, many of the students that come into WSU know what they want and know how to get there, he said.

“They (veterans) are a more focused and serious group,” he says. “They know what they want and how to get it done. They have a different perspective on life.”

That different perspective than most can sometimes lead to a hard time integrating into school, Zimmerman said. On average, veterans coming in as freshman are three years older than a student coming from high-school. Zimmerman said adjusting to that change in demographics is challenging for a group used to taking orders and working with respect.

Veterans see students partying and wasting time and they become disengaged with the institution.

“They see kids partying, they see kids who don’t care,” Zimmerman said.

Student veterans can also have a hard time adjusting to the lack of discipline and responsibility, Zimmerman said. Whether it be the lax attitude of some introductory-level courses or a more free-wheeling vibe of campus life, veterans often have to adjust to leaving the military.

“It’s a hard transition to get out of the military in general,” he said. “When they come here they have to refocus.”

According to the American Psychological Association, half of student veterans have experienced suicidal thoughts and 20 percent said they have planned a suicide, a greater portion than non-veteran peers.

Zimmerman sees success in veterans that seek out other veterans as on campus mentors, he says. Also, realize that traditional teenage students’ intellectual disinterest in a particular class can actually mean more time spent with a professor, which can boost a veterans’ morale when special programs geared for them don’t always appeal.

“They stay away from big special programs,” Zimmerman said. “They don’t like special treatment.”

And once veterans make it past the first couple years, the road gets easier.

“I don’t have the numbers but I think veterans do at least as well or better,” Zimmerman said about graduation rates compared to the general student population.

Like Bell, Zimmerman also encourages a veteran to have a solid knowledge of what they want from a school before applying. He says many schools have veteran coordinators, and those that don’t have a councilor or two that can offer help. And, at all costs, stay away from websites like the old

“The only thing you need is the official site,” he says.