VA’s GI Bill Comparison Tool Helps Veterans Research Education Programs
While he was stationed overseas in early 2008, John R. had an important decision to make. He could stay in the Navy for another tour or he could leave, apply to graduate school using his GI Bill benefits, and launch his post-military career. Applying to graduate school is a complex decision for anyone, but for John, limited resources to compare education programs made it even harder.
The GI Bill program provides educational assistance to Servicemembers, Veterans, and their dependents, and offers various options for education based on eligibility. Benefits can include tuition, a monthly housing allowance, books, and a supplies stipend. In some cases, individuals may qualify for more than one type of education benefit, such as Veterans who qualify for both Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty.
For John, the process of applying for graduate schools started in early 2008. It was a lot to manage — he had to complete the application process for several schools and figure out how much GI Bill benefits he could use towards his education. Here is the timeline of the process John followed:
· Summer 2008: While John was working through the process of separating from the military, he decided he wanted to go to graduate school. The process of separating from the military can take six to eight months once the paperwork is submitted.
· Fall 2008: John began applying for graduate programs and working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to understand his GI Bill eligibility and entitlement.
· Spring 2009: John learned that he’d been accepted and will receive financial aid along with his GI Bill benefits. His next challenge was relocating back to the U.S. and finding a place to live near his new university.
Helping Veterans through Technology
These days the process for applying for graduate schools is much easier, as getting information about VA education benefits can be done in seconds — Veterans can access school information and benefits on a smartphone, anywhere in the world. Technological upgrades to VA’s resources — like the GI Bill Comparison Tool on vets.gov — have made it easier for Veterans like John to answer their biggest questions about their education benefits. Prior to the Comparison Tool, John would have had to access the VA’s approval database on the GI Bill website, which is called WEAMS (Web Enabled Approval Management System). This system provided a list of approved schools, not the amount that a Veteran could receive at a specific school, or other crucial details when making such a large life decision.
The GI Bill Comparison Tool
VA launched the first version of the Comparison Tool in 2014 and relaunched the tool on VA’s one-stop website, Vets.gov, in 2015. The Comparison Tool allows Servicemembers, Veterans, and their families to plan their education by viewing and comparing every VA-approved education program to learn how they can use benefits, Veteran-centric programs available on campus, and other helpful information.
Simplifying the user experience
For the relaunch, VA brought together a cross-functional group to redesign and rebuild the system, and tested the site with real users with a goal of creating a user-friendly system designed to help Veterans access information about their benefits and schools.
Paper application forms were pared down to a handful of questions that users would need to answer to learn their specific benefit eligibility. VA centralized the data into one place to allow for a better user experience and even pulled in data from the College Scorecard, a U.S. Digital Service project that makes it possible for users to browse school data like dropout rates, average salary after graduation, and average student debt.
The Vets.gov developers created a system to allow business stakeholders to upload 21 different data sources, automatically aggregating them and making the output accessible via API. Relying on the Digital Services Playbook and U.S. Web Design Standards, the team then built a fast, responsive website using React and Rails (coding languages) that quickly and easily walks Veterans through the five-question process to find detailed information about relevant institutions.
Seconds, Not Minutes
The Comparison Tool is just one of several digital resources VA offers to help Veterans and their families get information about education programs and make the best decision to meet their goals. VA is constantly working with its partners to make it easier and faster for Veterans to become informed consumers of their benefits and access information about approved programs.
Stay tuned for more GI Bill-related updates on vets.gov, such as updated forms and other tools, all designed to help Veterans access and understand their benefits better than ever.