Concerned that the Post-9/11 GI Bill could become a target for budget cutters as the 2 1/2-year-old program's price tag tops $17 billion, major veterans groups are supporting consumer protection and counseling legislation aimed at ensuring that students maximize their benefits.
"Veterans are grossly unprepared to use their benefits, and we need to do something about it," said Ryan Gallucci of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Two bills, one in the House and another in the Senate, take similar approaches to helping service members squeeze the most education out of their benefits.
One idea is to expand counseling to help prospective students determine what kind of education they need.
For example, the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., would create an online tool to help people determine whether they need remedial education before jumping into a college or vocational training program, as well as a separate online tool to help them select the school that would best help them achieve their goal.
"What my bill boils down to is that the veterans need to be armed with information," Bilirakis said.
Education counseling is available for those who request it from the Veterans Affairs Department. But only about 6,400 of the almost 1 million people who used veterans education benefits last year requested the training, Gallucci said.
Ensuring that benefits are not wasted could play a major role in protecting the GI Bill program from future budget cuts, Gallucci said.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has similar concerns about students not getting the education they expect.
"If we don't follow through on the promise of the GI Bill and ensure our veterans are succeeding in school, then its benefits are greatly diminished," Lautenberg said. "The GI Bill can only be fully effective if veterans have the tools needed to choose the school that is right for them."
A goal of both bills is to provide consumer protection against schools and programs that make unrealistic promises about the quality of the education they deliver, or their graduates' ability to later find a job.
Stephen Gonzalez of the American Legion said veterans can have difficulty comparing schools because there are different formats for information and different descriptions that "render this information all but useless."
Gonzalez said state approving agencies that determine which schools are eligible to receive GI Bill tuition payments should be required to collect information, such as graduation rates and graduate employment rates, that would help veterans know what to expect.