SAN DIEGO—In the main room of a onetime fraternity house at the edge of San Diego State University, a small group of students labors quietly, laser-focused, over textbooks and laptops.
This is the Veterans House, its door propped open by a spent artillery shell. It’s where some of the more than 800 military veterans enrolled here study between classes as a flat-screen TV broadcasts SportsCenter with the volume muted, or help each other out with particularly challenging assignments.
At the heart of the campus is yet another lounge for student-veterans. Called the Bunker, it’s draped with camouflage and decorated with service symbols, insignia, and vintage recruiting posters. It’s inside the Veterans Center, a warren of offices filled with advisers and counselors—most military veterans themselves—who cut through paperwork and other potentially career-ending distractions.
This level of support helps more than three-quarters of the veterans at San Diego State graduate within four years, the university reports, nearly double the national average. That’s in spite of extra challenges confronting student-veterans, who are usually older than traditional-aged students and more likely to be juggling college with families, jobs, and service-related disabilities, and who often face significantly more red tape.
“They can do it all here,” said Chaz Painter, a former Navy gunner’s mate who had just gotten help at the Veterans Center with some forms. “You don’t have to go down to the VA or wait forever on the phone or go online. I came here and got it all done in five minutes.”
Success rates like San Diego State’s are more of an exception than the rule, however.
Many colleges and universities that eagerly recruit military veterans and the $10.2 billion a year in GI Bill benefits that come with them offer nowhere near as much support, and their student-veterans rarely get degrees, according to data obtained from the Departments of Defense, Education, and Veterans Affairs.
The odds of a GI Bill recipient graduating from San Diego Mesa College, just eight miles away, for example, are one in 100. Even that’s better than some schools, though: At nearly a third of the 20 two-year schools that enrolled at least 100 veterans receiving GI Bill benefits and who are eligible for degrees, none of them got one.
These aren’t for-profit colleges and universities, some of which Democrats in Congress say treat veterans and service members like “dollar signs in uniform,” targeting them for the billions of dollars in education benefits they bring.
They’re public community colleges at which student-veterans’ educations are subsidized not once, but twice, by taxpayers: through support of the colleges directly and with those billions in GI Bill money.
As for how student-veterans using the GI Bill do at four-year universities nationwide, there’s no official way to know. Nearly a decade…