Many policymakers are touting college education as the best way to help American veterans. The extensive federal money available for veterans to attend college at low (or no) cost offers the promise of a better life to those who serve their country. Some 600,000 veterans spent around $9 billion in federal money this year for education.

So veterans are going to college in record numbers. The trouble is no one knows if they’re graduating. According to a piece by Larry Abramson at NPR’s Morning Edition:

There are no national statistics on veterans’ graduation rates, and that lack of data recently led to a slight panic among supporters. Some press accounts cited information that said only 3 percent of vets were getting degrees. Veterans’ advocates quickly debunked that number, but it just pointed to a need for data.

Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, is working to develop a database to show what nearly 1 million new vets are doing with the $24 billion and counting that they’ve received.

Because most education statistics only track “first-time, full-time students” most veterans don’t count in official statistics. And even when veterans are included, it’s hard to draw out specific veteran information.

Advocates argue that it’s important to try to get veteran information “in an era of budget cuts” because it’s important to be able to prove that GI Bill money is effective. Still, it’s hard to know what “effective” would mean here. Would a 20 percent completion rate indicate that the program works? How about a 50 percent completion rate?

Critics suggest that the veteran college completion rate is low because veterans are simply not like regular students and often benefit from additional supports (like the specific veteran centers many schools operate and pay for on their own).

Of course, not many non-veterans graduate from college either. Only 60 percent of full-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in 8 years. Only 26 percent of part-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in 8 years. It’s possible tracking veteran success will give colleges a better idea what programs and supports are most effective, perhaps even for students will no military experience.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer