Report: Majority of Applicants Denied STEM Scholarship for Veterans
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- Over the past three years, about 3,500 veterans have used the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship program.
- However, approximately 63% of applicants for the program were denied between 2018 and 2021.
- The Government Accountability Office says Veterans Affairs needs to clarify who can qualify and alert applicants as to why it denied them.
A government report found administrative issues with a 3-year-old scholarship program aimed at helping veterans earn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship program, which covers nine months of study toward a STEM degree after a student veteran's GI Bill benefits expire.
GAO's analysis found that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denied 63% of applicants for the scholarship, but it has little information as to why it denies at such a high volume.
The report unearthed other issues with the program. Problems include a confusing application process, unclear guidance for those denied, and a lack of understanding of the Rogers STEM Scholarship among some VA employees.
What Is the Rogers STEM Scholarship?
Those who serve at least three years in the U.S. military are eligible for four years of tuition-free study at a college or university, thanks to Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
However, earning a STEM degree in just four years can be challenging for many. According to GAO's report, many schools have a specific course path that students in STEM degrees must take to graduate. That means failing one class can prevent them from moving forward, extending their timeline to graduation.
Additionally, GAO found that issues specifically affecting veteran students — including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — may also impact their likelihood of finishing within four years.
That's where the Rogers STEM Scholarship comes in.
The program pays for an additional nine months of study for an undergraduate degree after the four years the GI Bill covers. The Rogers STEM Scholarship caps out at $30,000 per student, according to the VA.
Students may only access the scholarship if they have six months or less of eligibility remaining for their GI Bill benefits.
Trouble Getting the Funds
GAO's report notes that not only does the VA reject more than half of Rogers STEM Scholarship applications (63%), but it does so at a higher rate for Black veterans and female veterans compared to white veterans and male veterans.
The VA does not keep descriptive measures of why it denies any applicants, GAO found, let alone why some demographic groups are denied at higher rates.
Likely reasons for denial include when the applicant:
- Is not enrolled in a qualified STEM program
- Has more than six months of GI Bill benefits remaining
- Does not have the required 60 credit hours in an eligible program
GAO's analysis found that VA data shows 83% of denied applicants were turned down because their "program of study [was] not STEM eligible." However, an internal VA report stated that claims processors used this category as a "catch-all" for most applicants, which means the agency cannot accurately determine where application issues lie.
Also, many applicants may find that the VA is unclear throughout the application process, primarily with denial letters.
GAO's report found that when the VA sends a denial letter, it may include contradictory information. For example, if it denies a student veteran because they have more than six months of GI Bill eligibility, it will encourage the student to reapply later. If it denied the student because they weren't in a STEM major, the VA will tell them so.
That means if both are true concurrently, an applicant's denial letter may encourage them to reapply even though their program is not eligible.
GAO concluded its report by laying out next steps the VA should take to address the issues found.
Those recommendations included that the VA should:
- Clarify that the Rogers STEM Scholarship does not have all the same benefits as the GI Bill
- Communicate the status of applications and when students can expect a decision
- State in denial letters whether an applicant may be eligible for the scholarship in the future
- Improve how it tracks application denial reasons
- Create a plan to continually analyze application data, as well as analyze disparities in denial rates by race and sex
According to GAO's report, the VA agreed with these recommendations.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at https://benefits.va.gov/gibill/index.asp.