Vets may be missing out on money for STEM degrees

R.J. Oriez

Thousands of veterans pursuing science and engineering degrees may have missed out on extra education benefits to finish their coursework because of confusion over Veterans Affairs assistance programs, according to a new government watchdog report.

At issue is the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship, launched in 2019. The benefit is designed to help veterans finish degree programs in certain science and engineering fields after they have exhausted their GI Bill payments.

Eligible veterans can get up to $30,000 over nine months through the Rogers scholarship.

But a new Government Accountability Office report found that through the first three years of the program, only about 3,500 students were approved, with nearly double that number denied for unclear reasons. Thousands more who may have been eligible never applied in part because of a lack of understanding about the scholarship’s rules.

GI Bill updates for 2023: New rates, new maximums

“Veterans who need additional time to complete a degree may be able to use the Rogers STEM scholarship, but issues with VA’s communications may hinder their efforts to use it,” the researchers wrote.

“Some of VA’s outreach materials and letters to veterans regarding the scholarship benefits and application process are not clear and may cause veterans to misunderstand the benefits available to them or hinder their access to the scholarship. Moreover, because VA does not collect specific data on applications, the agency cannot identify the most common reasons for denying applications.”

About 134,000 veterans used department education benefits to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field between 2018–2021, VA officials estimated. That accounts for roughly 40% of all individuals attending school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill during that period.

The most common fields of study were computer and information sciences, medical professional work and engineering.

GAO officials said that STEM degrees can be particularly difficult for veterans to complete before their GI Bill benefits are used up because of math and science prerequisites that can delay enrollment in subsequent classes.

Programs like the Rogers scholarship should help cover that additional delay. But GAO researchers said that navigating the application process is difficult because VA rarely offers specific reasons for rejections.

Despite VA referring to the Rogers scholarship as a “Post-9/11 GI Bill extension,” the program only is open to veterans (not dependents attending school on a family members’ GI Bill) and only covers certain areas of study.

Veterans who apply for the scholarship with more than six months of GI Bill benefits left are automatically denied, but GAO officials said the VA does not always inform those veterans they might be eligible if they reapply later on.

And applicants who may not have enough coursework completed when they apply also could be eligible in the future, but are not always given that information, the GAO report states.

Plan to ease GI Bill reporting rules for colleges signed into law

VA officials expect overhaul outreach and informational materials regarding the scholarship over the next six months. They also plan on more in-depth tracking of denials to better understand where problems exist, with an eye towards improving processing and communication.

Congress authorized $175 million for the Rogers scholarship program since its start, but the department so far has spent less than $58 million of that.

More information on the scholarship is available at the VA website.