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WASHINGTON — The post-9/11 GI Bill is about to graduate from its introductory courses to advanced education theory.

As the college benefit for veterans hits its four-year anniversary this week, Veterans Affairs officials are shifting their focus from how the program is administered to how students are using the money. It’s a significant step forward, and one that could dictate just how long the generous benefit survives.

In a Monday conference call with reporters, VA deputy undersecretary of economic opportunity Curt Coy said the department will launch a series of new tools in the coming months to help student veterans evaluate career paths, compare colleges and make sure they’re using their education money wisely.

The focus until now has largely been on making sure those students were actually getting their money. When the new GI Bill benefit went into effect in August 2009, implementation of the benefit was marked by weeks and months of delays, some of which nearly forced veterans to put their degree plans on hold.

Coy said new automated systems have simplified the process, and dramatically cut down on delivery times for most veterans’ checks. The department now averages processing of payments for enrolled students in about seven days, a dramatic turn-around from years past.

Veterans groups said they have seem similar encouraging results over the last two years.

The post-9/11 GI Bill, passed by Congress in response to veterans complaints that the legacy GI Bill programs hadn’t kept up with tuition inflation, grants a monthly living stipend and a full four years’ tuition at any state school to veterans who served at least three years since September 2001.

Troops who served 10 years can transfer their benefit to a spouse or child. Since August 2009, more than 1 million veterans and dependents have used the benefit, cashing in to the tune of nearly $30 billion.

But officials can’t point to any clear results from that spending yet. Earlier this year, the VA and Student Veterans of America announced a partnership to track student success in using the new GI Bill, compiling data on graduation, degrees earned and job placement.

Mike Dakduk, executive director of SVA, said getting that data will be crucial to ensuring that the benefit remains funded for years to come.

“I always worry about someone considering cutting back on it,” he said, noting the fiscal restraints many government agencies are currently facing.

“We think the post-9/11 GI Bill should be the flagship program for veterans benefits. But we know public awareness is waning, and we need to show this is more than just a transition program.”

Veterans groups have long argued that the education program — like many other veterans benefits — are earned rewards and not optional assistance. But lawmakers cut back on the original GI Bill 12 years after its passage in 1944, leaving Korean and Vietnam war veterans with less generous payouts than their World War II counterparts.

Coy noted that while the GI Bill program is being used heavily, troops have up to 15 years from their separation from service to access the education benefits.

That could mean that the next four years will see even more veterans and dependents access the tuition money, which would only increase the scrutiny on the program.

Coy said that underscores why administrators need to shift attention to how veterans are using the money.

That’ll mean tracking not just traditional college graduation rates but also usage of vocational programs and success for non-traditional students, who balance family and full-time jobs with schooling.

shane.leo@stripes.com Twitter: @LeoShane

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