One of VA’s biggest successes recently has been hiding in plain sight under our digital noses. The GI Bill Comparison Tool continues to quietly break traffic records as 79,246 visitors used the tool in January 2017 and has received 5.6 million page views since coming online.
It’s no surprise the start of a new semester brings increased traffic, as last month’s peak beat out August 2016 by some 2,000 visitors and the previous best by 7,000 visitors in August 2014 — when the comparison tool was launched.
The trend shows that more Veterans, Servicemembers and their dependents are using the tool to make informed choices on where and when and how they will utilize their GI Bill benefits — to say nothing of the school officials and administrators, data crunchers and legislators checking in on how certain institutions rate or stack up.
The comparison tool has helped 1.74 million unique users — validating the humble vision of the small team that created it.
Too often, it seems, the public perceives government as inefficient and wasteful. But the comparison tool was almost completely homebrewed by just a handful of VA and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) developers.
Since VA cannot actually advise a Veteran or Servicemember on where or which school they can use their GI Bill benefits, the comparison tool originated in idea as a protection, a way for users to research public, private and for-profit institutions on their own.
The federal requirement was created by Executive Order 13607 and Public Law 112-249, which stated:
d) The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, in consultation with the secretaries of Defense and Education, shall provide to prospective military and Veteran students, prior to using their benefits, streamlined tools to compare educational institutions using key measures of affordability and value
(5) Effective and efficient methods to provide Veterans and members of the Armed Forces with information regarding postsecondary education and training opportunities available to the veteran or member
In an email for this story, VBA’s Curt Coy, deputy under secretary for economic opportunity, asked me to “imagine a government IT project that was built from scratch using internal digital services staff, has never been down and has been widely praised.”
“That’s what the GI Bill Comparison Tool is,” he said. And despite early roadblocks like lack of funding for the project, a potentially hostile climate due to the rollout of healthcare.gov, and shortage of building tools resources on staff, “the biggest complaint [so far] is that most users want more [information].”
And it’s not just VA singing the comparison tool’s praises.
American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Student Veterans of America (SVA), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and even members of the US Congress have spoken publicly in support of the comparison tool’s virtues.
“The GI Bill Comparison tool helps Servicemembers learn about education programs and compare estimated benefits by school,” said Paul Kantwill, assistant director of the CFPB’s Office of Servicemember Affairs.
“Each year, too many student Veterans across the country pick schools that aggressively recruit Vets for their GI Bill money, but don’t offer them a high-quality education in return. The VA built a useful tool that helps those student Veterans invest their GI Bill benefits wisely.”
The comparison tool lists whether a school is nationally or regionally accredited, as well as highlighting with a caution flag if a school has been placed on probation by an accreditor. And since the well being and contentment of current students is one indicator of whether or not an institution could be a good fit for a prospective student, VA lists the number of complaints a school has received, whether or not the school has agreed to the Principles of Excellence, 8 Keys to Veteran Success, or if it has a Veteran Success On Campus (VSOC) program. The tool also lists the number of GI Bill users on campus, their graduation rate and annual average salary of graduates.
In contributing to this story, Coy’s office and the digital services staff told me they’re working on building more information into the tool, especially now that its hosted on vets.gov.
“We know that the most-searched schools are American Public University, Harvard University, San Diego State University, Arizona State University and University of Washington,” Coy said. “And we know that most users want to know what their GI Bill will pay at a particular school, like MHA [housing allowance based on BAH], or whether it’s Yellow Ribbon or fully funded. But what we’re hearing is that they want this info to be mobile compatible [addressed when the tool was moved to vets.gov], they want an enhanced search with more information, and they want more features, like a GI Bill Chapter Chooser.
“We’re getting there,” he continued, “but considering where we came from, we’re proud of where we are now, too.”