Who are the 88 Percent?

Mark Twain once said (although he credited Benjamin Disraeli) that "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." This was not a point about honesty, but of the awesome power of statistics to back up any argument -- true or false. Numbers have power -- they make people pay attention -- so they often sway public opinion, thereby creating a profound impact on public policy.

One such statistic that has shown up repeatedly this year is that 88 percent of veterans attending school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill (aka New GI Bill) drop out within the first year. If this number were true, it would cast serious doubt on the effectiveness of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and endanger the future of the program. But as far as anyone can tell, there's no truth to this claim at all.

An article posted last summer on MSNBC states that the 88 percent statistic comes from a March 2012 study by the Colorado Workforce Development Council. The study cites the Senate HELP Committee as a source, but none of the reports on the Senate committee's website reference this statistic. IAVA has contacted one of the authors of the study at the Colorado Department of Labor inquiring about the source of the statistic, but have yet to receive a response. In the meantime, the study has been removed from their site and is no longer accessible. My colleagues over at Student Veterans of America dug deeper and found that the statistic isn't sourced in any articles it appears in. Curious.

The origin and credibility of this statistic is undoubtedly suspect. First of all, neither the VA nor the Department of Education actually tracks graduation rates for student veterans. The waters are even further muddied because the Department of Education's definition of "graduation" doesn't reflect the educational experience of many student vets. To be considered a "graduate," a student must be a first-time, full-time, four-year student with no breaks in education.

Using this formula, despite having a bachelor's degree from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), I am considered a college drop-out. Weird, huh?

Right out of high school, I enrolled at the College of Marin, but I took 6 months off between my freshman and sophomore year to attend Army basic and advanced training. Following this training, I returned to the College of Marin and in 1999 earned my AA. After returning from a deployment to Bosnia in 2000, I transferred to UCSB for my junior year on an ROTC scholarship. After graduating in December of 2002, I continued on to active duty in the Army.

According to the Department of Education, I dropped out of college not once, but twice. My parents wouldn't have been happy if this were true, but it couldn't be further from reality, so they didn't mind at all.

This all underscores an ongoing problem with the GI Bill and education in general. Although we invest over $140 billion each year in higher education, we don't have a good way to measure the outcomes of our investment. While I'm sure that a robust investment in education is the right thing to do, I can't really prove it.

In terms of all higher education, this is a problem. In terms of the GI Bill, this is a potential crisis.

The World War II GI Bill was a great return on investment for America. According to the Congressional Research Service, the WWII GI Bill returned $7 to the U.S. economy for every $1 spent. However, it took about 40 years to gather that data. With modern technology, we should be able to track student success and return on investment (ROI) in real time. If we don't, and this fiscal crisis persists, the GI Bill might look very appealing to lawmakers looking to cut spending.

Fortunately, we have time to fix this. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4057 from Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R FL-9). This bill will help establish student success metrics and help make that data more transparent for consumers and lawmakers alike. It is sitting in the Senate right now and needs to be passed before the end of the year.

Today the Senate is taking up their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Up for consideration are two amendments by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) that would add additional accountability requirements as well as improve consumer education and protections for student veterans. They are important amendments that will go a long way towards protecting the GI Bill. The Senate must adopt them and Congress must include them in the final version of the NDAA that is sent to the President. We cannot let special interests and those looking to make a quick buck off veterans' benefits hijack this vote.

Please call your Senator today and tell them to vote for SA. 2957 and SA. 2958.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has the potential for a great ROI for America. Let's not screw this up.