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Veterans Day: Leaving the Battlefield for the College Classroom

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Last fall at EWA’s Higher Education Seminar, we examined the challenges of military personnel making the transition from soldiers to students. Given today’s holiday, it seemed like a good time to re-share this post about the panel discussion, held at Northeastern University in Boston. 

Far more students seeking higher education degrees are part-time, older than the traditional 18-22 set and well into their careers. And colleges have been flagged for their lagging efforts to address the unique needs of these mature students.

Among the crop of learners struggling to find a foothold in the summit of academe are veterans. Few colleges track their success rates during their studies, services that help service members wend the warren of rules to claim their federal benefits are scarce and most administrators have admitted they struggle to understand the root causes of why veterans drop out.

Places of higher learning certainly have an incentive to troubleshoot their lackluster record with veteran students: The next 10 years will likely see a considerable reduction in high school graduates, meaning colleges will have to keep their enrollments steady by recruiting more non-traditional students. With wars abroad winding down and more soldiers heading home from their military missions, returning to school will be a popular option.

Yet the answer for colleges and universities isn’t as easy as giving more money – one million student veterans and their families have received $30 billion in benefits from the Post-9/11 GI bill since 2009. Qualified students in 2013 received up to nearly $20,000 in tuition assistance, plus housing stipends that can exceed $2,400 a month. Former service members are also eligible for other federal aid, like Pell Grants. However, some institutions cost more money than others: in fiscal year 2011, nearly two-thirds of all Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients attended a private school. (See figure four in this primer on the GI Bill for a breakdown of how much students are receiving per type of institution.)

“Before you can create tailored programs for veterans on campus, you got to know who they are – demographically, personally, and you have to give them a voice on campus,” said Peter Buryk, a researcher at the RAND corporation who’s written papers on veteran experiences at colleges.

Buryk, a Navy veteran, joined two other veteran panelists at EWA’s Higher Education Seminar to talk about how colleges can improve the social and academic services they provide veterans. The task for colleges is a heavy lift, in no small part because “veterans are not a monolithic group,” said Marc Cole, a Marine veteran and point person at the U.S. Department of Education’s new office on veteran students. “Their needs are going to vary as well.”

It’s true: Buryk comes from a long line of military men. He received an elite appointment to the Naval Academy, which doesn’t charge tuition. Others sign up for military service feeling they have few other options.

Ashley Parker, a Navy veteran who’s wrapping up her studies at Drexel University with a focus on communications, said growing up in Baltimore meant serving in the military was a foregone conclusion.

“I figured out at an early age the options that were going to be available to me, and they didn’t seem as promising as I would’ve liked,” Parker said.

Parker joined her high school’s ROTC program and enlisted shortly after earning her diploma. She was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia on the USS Bataan and served on two tours abroad. After four years of military duty she first enrolled at a community college, later applying to four-year institutions, including ultra competitive schools like Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania. Parker finally settled on Drexel University in Philadelphia, in part because, as Parker said, “it felt veteran-friendly.”

Drexel gave veterans their own study space and lounge area, said Parker. They offered to cover the student veteran’s health insurance. During graduation veterans received red, white and blue cords to signify their status as men and women of the armed services.

At Drexel, Parker said, veteran students receive priority registration for courses—one of the ways to ensure veterans don’t use up their Veteran Affairs benefits before completing their coursework. The GI Bill money is good for only 36 months of studies, which means students need to quickly decide on an academic point of focus. “It’s very important to get in, get the classes you need and get out,” Parker said. “And Drexel has been very conscious of that.”

Lately, much attention has been placed on how quickly veterans receive their benefits and whether the skills they learned in the military can be transferred to a college or university. Recent reports suggest places of higher learning struggle to reward veterans for their studies during military service, a problem for many reasons, including the risk of taking repeat classes that test veteran patience and put their financial benefits at risk.

Sometimes, the financial aid office does not collaborate with the VA, leading to delayed benefits. Even at a veteran-friendly school like Drexel, problems can arise. Parker said one quarter she waited five weeks to receive her GI benefits. “I spent half a term living off of work study and my meal plan,” she recounted. “Which is a big deal, because you put forth all this time and energy to get the benefits and then they’re not really doing what they’re supposed to do.”

And because student veterans tend to be older, their social needs may be far different than for the younger set – like childcare. That’s just one of “those practical things” Buryk said that many universities fail to account for in their effort to accommodate former military men and women.

Drexel is a private, nonprofit school, but much of the ire from consumer advocates has been pointed at for-profit universities like University of Phoenix. Those critics may be jumping the gun, Buryk suggested.

He cited a recent survey that looked at the credit transfer satisfaction level for veterans attending for-profits schools. The results were higher among students of these proprietary colleges than among students attending other institutions. Buryk said that because many for-profits have campuses across the country, they have a “centralized, methodological” way of transferring credits from the military.

One reason not stated outright? It’s also in their interest financially to supercharge their services, because even though the for-profits educate 12 percent of all students in higher education, they enrolled a third of all GI-Bill students in FY 2011.

That’s a detail the Department of Education is likely familiar with, and one reason they’ve ratcheted up their support for veteran students. In the late summer the department unveiled a new voluntary program that recognizes colleges and universities that have promised to follow a set of guidelines experts say will improve outcomes for student veterans. Missing from the list? For-profits.

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.