Going to college on the G.I. Bill today

April 04, 2014

Johnny Watts started school at the University of Illinois after serving in the Army for six years. He says returning to the life of a student after serving in the military was a little daunting. He worried he wouldn’t be classroom ready, that other students would be far ahead of him in terms of coursework. But once he found a community of veterans to hang out with, he says it got easier. “It was nice when I found other vets to talk to. You kind of have your own language after being in the service,” he said. “And, then I had someone else besides my wife to talk to about school.”

Watts graduates this spring from the University of Illinois with a degree in electrical engineering, and is moving to southern California with his wife. She’s also a veteran who has been attending the University of Illinois. And, according to a new study from the Student Veterans of America, the Watts’ are among a large group of veterans who’ve taken advantage of the education benefits in the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

New data shows that just over 50 percent of returning soldiers who use the GI Bill are finishing their degrees.

Nicholas Osborne, Dean of Veterans Student Services at the University of Illinois, says it’s a little bit higher than 50 percent at the Urbana campus where around 400 veterans are enrolled. He’s not satisfied with that figure. “That means 1 in 2 veterans are dropping out of school. We can do better.”

The original G.I. Bill that was passed in 1944 following World War II was transformative to the way Americans think about higher education. Author Ed Humes says that at the time, few people thought veterans would utilize the education benefit. They were wrong; nearly 8 million vets finished degrees following the war. 

The current G.I. Bill is much different than the original one, but many are still using it to gain access to higher education. Osborne says it’s up to colleges and universities to ensure it’s feasible for veterans to utilize current day benefits.

During this Focus interview, Scott Cameron talks with Watts about the unique barriers he’s faced trying to get acclimated with the university environment after returning from the military. We also hear from Osborne and author Ed Humes who wrote the book “Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream.”