How Do Investments in College Pay Off? Lessons from Army Veterans

Publication Date


Grant Type

Early Career Research Award


In recent years, federal policy on education has been driven by the guiding principle that “college is the best investment you can make.” Non-traditional students now comprise nearly half of college enrollment, and while there is a growing consensus on the returns for traditional students, there is little convincing evidence that these returns extend to non-traditional students, who tend to enroll later and at less selective institutions, or how these returns vary across different types of institutions or individuals. This study attempts to answer these questions using separated Army veterans, taking advantage of two policies that generate quasi-random variation in the likelihood that veterans will attend different college types: (1) conditionally random base assignment that results in variation in the accessibility of different college types, and (2) variation in the costs of different institutions generated by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. We leverage these sources of variation using a unique panel of data on all individuals on active duty from 1991 through 2016 linked with detailed post-secondary data and earnings information from the Treasury Department. Using multiple instrumental variable approaches, we will estimate the return to college as well as how this return varies across different types of colleges and individuals. Given the importance of education during Army soldiers transition between the military and civilian sector, these results may be particularly informative for thinking about the benefits of similar programs for individuals who are transitioning between jobs in the civilian labor market.