First passed in 1944, the GI Bill transformed U.S. postsecondary education and the course of the nation’s economic development in the late 20th century. Seventy-three years later, the latest revision of the law is poised to mark another turning point for the education and workforce landscape.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, kicked off a college enrollment boom. By 1947, more than 50 percent of higher-education students were beneficiaries and, in some institutions, up to 60 percent of the entire student body were GI Bill veterans. These graduates began their careers in an uncertain postwar economy, but their education and training helped to fuel the nation’s phenomenal economic growth, what many call the “Golden Age of Capitalism.”
Seventy-three years later, the “Golden Age” may be behind us. Technology is ushering a new economic era where the jobs of yesterday are evolving—or eroding—with the emergence of the “gig economy.” Automation and artificial intelligence will play a large role in shaping what skills future workers will need.
As it turns out, a rare bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill has positioned the GI Bill to extend its role in equipping veterans for what’s next in their careers. This August, Congress passed the “Forever GI Bill” and made two critical changes to the program designed to help veterans to forge tomorrow’s education to new education-to-employment pathways. (The program currently serves about one million veterans annually.)
First, as the title indicates, veterans will no longer lose their benefits after 15 years—as was the case under the original GI Bill. This is important because it recognizes that the path from education to employment is not as linear or sequential as in the past. Education, competencies, and skills training is more likely to happen in fits and start, as life allows.
Second, the providers and methods of education and job training programs are becoming more diverse. While traditional colleges and universities still do the lion’s share of the work, more and more programs are available by non-accredited education providers that focus on rapidly-changing skills and competencies that employers need now. Congress dedicated $75 million ($15 million per year over five years) to nontraditional providers for these new opportunities through the High Technology Pilot Program.
The program authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to enter into contracts with providers to offer educational programs to eligible veterans. The pilot is remarkable for at least three reasons:
1. Federal funding to new institutions
Eligible high-tech programs, as defined by the new law, must be related to technology subjects but do not have to be offered by a higher-ed institution or lead to a degree. Providers must have also been in existence for two years and offer the program for one year.
This definition aligns with the rise of bootcamps or other non-accredited educational programs such as General Assembly and other providers that have emerged in recent years. The law reflects Congressional confidence that short-term, intensive training can produce tangible employment outcomes.
2. New pathways to government dollars
The Forever GI Bill provides the VA Secretary with wide-ranging ability to develop “approval criteria” to define more specifics on which providers are eligible, how the funds will be awarded, and to weed out fraud. That process is underway since most of the contracts with the high-technology programs must be in place by the end of next year, or sooner if possible.
Interestingly, non-accredited providers that cannot access Title IV Federal Student Aid can already become eligible for students to use GI Bill funding, but the process is laborious and time consuming. For example, the entity has to wait to apply for two years after they receive state licensure and approval to be in operation. At that time, providers must then fill out a new application and go through a separate process to get approval for GI Bill funding eligibility, working through a State Approving Agency, which then must also get approval from the VA.
This pilot program could cut begin to cut through that red tape and dramatically simplify access to federal funding by creating a whole new approval process.
3. Employment outcome matters
Higher-education funding has traditionally required student financial eligibility and enrollment at eligible institutions. Yet in recent years, states are increasingly adopting performance-based funding formulas based on degree attainment, course completion by underserved students, responsiveness to workforce needs, and other measures that will vary by program.
In Ohio, for example, the funding formula contains “success points” that are used to allocate funding associated with student success as measured by credit accumulation and “developmental” completion. However, these programs are still largely experimental. With the exception of Ohio and Tennessee, states typically only dedicate a small percentage of their funding formulas to the program and implementation is cautiously carried out over a long period of time.
This High Technology Pilot forges ahead with outcomes-based funding. The statute establishes payments to approved education providers in three parts: 25 percent of the cost of tuition and other program fees is upon the enrollment of the veteran; 25 percent of the costs is paid upon the completion of the program; and 50 percent of the cost is upon the employment of the veteran in the field of study of the program. Simply put, the employment outcome matters.
The first GI Bill set the course for the nation’s prosperity during a time of postwar economic uncertainty. Congress has, again, utilized the GI Bill to help veterans navigate new economic uncertainties and shifting postsecondary education and job training opportunities.
There is hope that the High Technology Pilot Program can help better align postsecondary education (in its many forms) with the needs of our economy. In three years, the Secretary submits the first interim assessment of the program. The final report will come out two years later, in 2023. By then the pilot program will likely look like something we should have done long ago.