If this VA program was a high school, people would complain about the dropout rate

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The Veterans Affairs Department is in the midst of a five year pilot program. It’s called VET TEC or Veteran Employment through Technology Education Courses. The Government Accountability Office found the program has some problems, including that a third of the veterans enrolled drop out. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  turned to the GAOs...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Veterans Affairs Department is in the midst of a five year pilot program. It’s called VET TEC or Veteran Employment through Technology Education Courses. The Government Accountability Office found the program has some problems, including that a third of the veterans enrolled drop out. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  turned to the GAOs acting director for education, workforce and income security issues, Dawn Locke.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin:  And just tell us more about this program that you looked into, because this was something kind of a major congressionally chartered initiative, correct?

Dawn Locke: That is correct. So the Forever GI Bill of 2017 instructed the VA to develop this pilot that provides tuition and other financial support to veterans who enroll in high tech education. And as you mentioned, at the beginning, it is a five year pilot. And the courses for this pilot take about three months. And during this time, again, the VA supports the veterans with tuition and housing.

Tom Temin: Got it. And what kind of numbers do they get? As far as take up of this? How many people were in there?

Dawn Locke: So we found that about 6,700 veterans have participated in the program thus far. But what I will add, Tom is that it is a very popular program. And some of the veterans who tried to take the courses were turned away because the VA ran out of money in the first two years of the pilot.

Tom Temin: Golly, so it must be kind of frustrating that you found high rates of dropouts, then also?

Dawn Locke: Well, we did find a 13% dropout rate and we don’t assess whether that’s a high or a low rate. But what we do know is that the VA doesn’t understand why veterans are dropping out. And so we made a recommendation along those lines so that they better understand why there’s a drop out and whether they can adjust for it to help those veterans get to a point where they can graduate.

Tom Temin: Sure. So you studied not so much whether the courses are any good or that type of thing. But it sounds like you looked at whether VA administered the program according to best practices for pilot programs.

Dawn Locke: Yeah, that is correct.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the best practices and how closely did VA follow them?

Dawn Locke: Well, we found that leading practices for pilot design really primarily insist that pilot programs have consistent, measurable objectives, and that TEC is lacking in this area. We haven’t seen consistent objectives across the first three years, nor has the VA established things like targets or ways to measure the success of the program. So I’ll describe this a little bit more clearly, what we’ve seen is a handful of different objectives from year to year. For example, the VA wants to improve employment outcomes. But you know, what does that mean, Tom? That they want more participants to get jobs, or that they want participants who do get jobs to have higher wages or longer term employment? Another metric we seen is that the VA wants to demonstrate a positive connection between education and employment. But how will this be measured to determine if they’re accomplishing this goal? I will say, however, that despite not having these objectives that are so important for pilot programs, it’s not too late. And we made a recommendation for the VA to establish clear, consistent, measurable objectives. And they agreed to implement that recommendation. So we’ll be checking in with them come December to learn of their progress.

Tom Temin: Right. One issue could be that, yes, you went through a tech course of some sort. But then if you got a job washing dishes, that’s not really a great correlation. And that’s the kind of metric that VA should have built in.

Dawn Locke: That’s exactly right.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dawn Locke, she’s acting director for education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office. And has VA been tracking? Or were you able to ascertain the demographics of those that were enrolling in these courses? Young age, male, female, whatever characteristics might be important?

Dawn Locke: Actually, we did. We looked at the demographics of the participants. And what’s most intriguing about this program, Tom, is that the pilot seems to be reaching historically underrepresented populations in the nation’s workforce. And what I mean by that is for the pilot women and men are equally represented as compared to their numbers in the veteran population. But even more than that, minorities make up about 33% of working veterans across our nation, but 67% of minorities make up VET TEC participants. So this is why we stress throughout the report that it’s important for knowing whether the program is working because those who are traditionally disadvantaged in the workforce are taking the training and could potentially benefit and get sustained meaningful jobs.

Tom Temin: And those are numbers that GAO found or did Veterans Affairs know those numbers?

Dawn Locke: These are numbers according to the Veterans Affairs data.

Tom Temin: Okay, so they are doing some tracking of the program, some data metrics on it, even though it doesn’t add up to a full picture of understanding.

Dawn Locke: That is correct. And although they’re tracking the type of participants, again, they’re not tracking the outcomes of what happens to the participant after they leave the program, which is key for a pilot.

Tom Temin: Sure. So then it sounds like ultimately they didn’t really have metrics for knowing whether the program was a success. I mean, it seems like you’d have to establish what it is you define a success, and then measure the program against that.

Dawn Locke: That is correct. Again, as I mentioned earlier, they don’t have targets or goals, and they don’t have any means of determining whether they’re meeting those targets or goals. And so that’s what they need to do in the next two years.

Tom Temin: And if you would just maybe go over the top line of the major recommendations you made.

Dawn Locke: Actually, we initially made seven recommendations to the Department of Veterans Affairs in our draft report. But our final report only included six recommendations because the VA already implemented one of the recommendations, and that was to simply update the trainer provider website with latest application materials. So they’ve done that which is great. The remaining six recommendations really boiled down to the VA having the information needed to understand whether the program is successful, and then taking actions on what they already identified as needing improvement. And so one other positive step that VA took that is in line with this recommendation is they held a summit in March of 2022 that resulted in an action plan. And in that action plan, the VA itself identified 80 actions that they could take to help improve VET TEC. But unfortunately, they have not committed to making those improvements yet. So again, one of our recommendations was taking the necessary steps. And for example, defining and providing timeframes for completing any of these action items within the next two years of the pilot.

Tom Temin: Right with two years left than they still have some runway then to get this on track. Fair to say?

Dawn Locke: Sure.

Tom Temin: So in some ways, you are helping them to make sure that the program becomes permanent, because Congress is going to look at this. And they could decide yes or no on renewing it.

Dawn Locke: That is correct and Congress won’t have the information it needs to be able to determine whether the program is working and whether it’s worth the money that goes into it.

Tom Temin: And just a final question, do you know anything about the institutions that were offering the courses, were they public private, if there still are any private technical training schools left.

Dawn Locke: So these training programs are primarily geared toward helping veterans for example, training, computer programming or software development and that type of thing. And something I’ll add about what we learned from the training providers is that they have found that the program can be a bit cumbersome. For example, it’s hard to plan courses because they don’t know when the VA will run out of money. Because the VA did run out of money, like I said, in the first two years the VA also seems to take a very long time to process the trainer applications. And then they found that the instructions are unclear for faculty qualifications and more in line with what would be expected of a college professor. So we do know that the VA is revising their approval process to try to accommodate these trainers better. But the other important thing that we learned from the trainers is that they take on a great financial risk. And what I mean by this, Tom is that the veterans are not necessarily being held accountable for seeking jobs. And instead, it’s the trainers. So what happens is, if the veterans don’t get a job within 180 days of taking the course, or if they don’t provide the VA with the paperwork that says they get a job, then the VA doesn’t pay 50% of the tuition owed to the training providers. And so some of these trainers are now asking vets to sign a form to acknowledge that they need to seek employment. And if they don’t, they may need to prepay tuition and fees.

Tom Temin: Sounds like there’s some good work to be done then here isn’t there?

Dawn Locke: And I’ll also add that this isn’t the end for GAO. So we’ll be conducting a follow-up report starting this spring, to really further assess any additional data or outcomes and then get veterans perspective of the program as well, because in this first body of work, we talked to the training providers in the VA, but now we think it’s important to hear from the veterans themselves.

Tom Temin: Dawn Locke is acting director for education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office.

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