No housing allowance for veterans who take only online courses

Service members who attend for-profit colleges are more likley to take online courses.

Military service members have to take at least one face-to-face course before they are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s housing allowance, although some veterans are unclear about the allowance requirement and how it affects their class selection.

In a report issued by the American Council on Education (ACE) Nov. 11, servicemen and women who use the new benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill passed last year said face-to-face classes were preferable to online classes during the transition from the battlefield to the lecture hall.

But some veterans whose course load was mostly online said they signed up for one brick-and-mortar course only to receive the GI Bill’s housing allowance. And in ACE focus groups, soldiers said they thought they would need more than one traditional course to apply for living expenses.

“That was something that was less widely understood in some cases,” said Jennifer Steele, an associate policy researcher for the RAND Corporation and an author of the ACE’s report, which advocated for more advising designated specifically for service members. “Many [veterans] weren’t aware of the exact requirements.”

The bill’s provision preventing only-online students from receiving allowance benefits wasn’t a snub of web-based education, Steele said, but a reflection of service members’ need for interaction with other veterans on campus.

“It wasn’t about the relative value of online versus face to face education,” Steele said. “Most [veterans] felt they were going to be more successful on campus … but many students wanted the convenience of taking online courses that fit their busy lifestyles.”

Monthly housing allowance ranges from $801 in rural parts of Ohio to $2,071 in New York City in the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Beneficiaries of the revamped bill also receive $1,000 a year toward textbook expenses.

Veterans who take college courses at popular for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University averaged six online college credits per semester, according to the ACE report. All other students averaged two online credits each semester.

Steele said this wasn’t a surprise because for-profit institutions represent some of the largest online programs in the country.

Although the new GI Bill didn’t bar online students from receiving housing allowances, the requirement to take at least one face-to-face course doesn’t fully acknowledge the needs of nontraditional students who prefer the flexibility of web-based classes, said Dave Saba, vice president of military programs at American University System, an association that advocates for increased college access in the Western Hemisphere.

“The military doesn’t see [online college courses] as inferior,” Saba said. “Online programs work much better with many people’s schedules. … And just because you’re going to an online class, doesn’t mean you don’t need a house to live in.”

Steele said ACE’s veteran focus groups showed that students attending for-profit colleges were less likely to receive targeted assistance for advisers who could help service members navigate the often-confusing transition from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post-/911 GI Bill.

“That came up as a problem … because they weren’t that well versed in the details,” she said of for-profit school advisers. “Public campuses tended to be much better versed in those kind of details.”

Students surveyed by ACE clamored for a web site that tracks Post-9/11 GI Bill payouts throughout a semester, similar to a web-based account system for the Montgomery GI Bill.

“We need a list of what’s been paid, when, and for what,” said an anonymous service member who attends classes at a private for-profit college.

Orientation sessions that catered to servicemen and women transitioning to the classroom, Steele said, was another popular request from veterans that could appeal to service members, especially those returning to higher education.

“It’s important to make it clear to them that they are welcomed and wanted and the institution understands their needs,” she said. “That can become a powerful marketing tool too because it says, ‘We know that you don’t have the same needs of an 18-year-old who has never been away from home.’”

During a workshop with 3,000 military veterans, educational leaders, and nonprofit organization and government officials hosted by ACE in May, service members said online resources from colleges and universities were not valid substitutes for face-to-face help.

College web sites should include more information on how to translate military service into resume work experience that would catch an employer’s eye, and clarify educational requirements “for certain career fields.”

Other highlights of the newest GI Bill include the ability to transfer educational benefits to spouses and children – an option available to service members who have served six years and pledged to serve four more.

Veterans can switch from the Montgomery GI Bill – the predecessor to the newest version – to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but the change is “irrevocable,” according to the ACE report.

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