The American Legion launched an intensive research initiative in 2019 to assess the future of online distance learning and to see how well veterans using their GI Bill education benefits are served when studies are not conducted in traditional classroom settings. That project surged in relevance within months, when the COVID-19 pandemic kicked much of American higher education off campus and onto the internet.
The first report from the grant-supported project was finished in September 2021, authored by Army veteran Joseph Wescott and Appalachian State University Assistant Professor of Higher Education Jason Lynch, both PhDs. Wescott is a higher education consultant for The American Legion and former president of the National Association of State Approving Agencies, which provides quality oversight for GI Bill eligibility across the country.
“Scholars and leaders in post-secondary education have consistently demonstrated that, when implemented appropriately, distance learning can be just as effective as the traditional classroom experience,” the report states. “Unfortunately, due to current regulatory and statutory barriers and interpretations, many veteran and military-affiliated students are restricted in using education benefits to take courses delivered in online environments.”
Wescott, a member of American Legion Post 48 in Hickory, N.C., says VA and the Department of Education have different definitions for such terms as “independent study” and “distance learning.” Such differences can complicate or deny veterans seeking to use their GI Bill benefits, he said. “When VA says ‘independent study,’ they are referring to ‘distance learning,’” Wescott says. “When the Department of Education says ‘independent study,’ it’s a very different thing.”
The American Legion’s Employment and Education Commission hopes to use the report to pursue removal of regulatory hurdles for veteran students enrolled in distance-learning online programs.
A second report, soon to be delivered, will assess risk among schools that market to student veterans, recruit them and apply their GI Bill benefits without comprehensive review to ensure they are viable and not in danger of closing before a degree is completed.
Wescott noted that most U.S. colleges and universities rapidly expanded their online or virtual curricula during the pandemic and, he adds, “there’s no going back.” He said that online education is also “a form of learning very much favored by our veterans and military students”
American Legion Employment and Education Division Director Joseph Sharpe says the research can assist the organization as it makes policy recommendations to VA and Congress. “The purpose of this is to provide background on higher education distance learning and regulatory barriers,” he said. “We’ve seen that distance learning has evolved because of the pandemic. How veterans use benefits through VA has not changed.”
One obstacle is “confusion over definitions,” Sharpe explained. “They can prevent veterans from being able to fully utilize their education benefits.”
“It is important that the language is updated to reflect common understandings and definitions related to independent study,” the report states. “Due to the conflation of distance learning and independent study, there is serious confusion among VA personnel, state approving agencies, educational institutions and veterans. This confusion impacts approval of policy, meetings, regulatory requirements, and particularly the educational programs by state approving agencies. From the student perspective, many veterans are unable to use their benefits to take distance learning courses. This creates a barrier for many veteran students who may be forced to temporarily or permanently suspend their studies due to deployment or other geographic impediments.”
The report states that accredited distance learning programs are as effective as traditional classroom settings “and may be more beneficial in assisting veteran students in expediting their time to degree attainment.” The report calls on VA to rewrite current regulations to replace the term “independent study” with “distance learning” – and to look closely at outdated rules about “correspondence courses” and the use of “closed-circuit TV” – to ease acceptance of non-traditional programs without forfeiting GI Bill benefits.
A second, related American Legion report to assess risk for students using their GI Bill benefits for online educations, as well as residential learning, mirrors earlier policy positions from the organization that seek protections for veterans enrolled in for-profit schools that go out of business or whose credits are not transferable.
The driving purpose of the research, Wescott says, is “to encourage VA and the nation to embrace distance learning even more … Online is the future, and the quality is there. The time has come. We’re not going back, due to the far-reaching advancements in technology.”
Wescott said American Legion members can use the research to influence state departments of veterans affairs, as well as the federal VA, on the need to make relevant updates to ease the burden of GI Bill-supported distance learning – while safeguarding against predatory institutions – as new directions in higher education unfold, post-COVID.