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Educating a New Generation of Veterans

July/August 2015

By Margo Vanover Porter

Business Officer salutes the country’s veterans— and the institutions that are welcoming them and supporting their efforts to earn a degree.


As veterans and their families stream onto college campuses, often equipped with generous tuition benefits, institutions are taking a holistic approach to supporting the academic and personal needs of this burgeoning population, says Tanya Ang, director of veterans’ programs, American Council on Education, Washington, D.C.

“Instead of throwing them into the deep end with no swimming skills, institutions are referring veterans to a center where they can receive one-on-one help,” she explains. “An adviser might teach them how to self-advocate, walk them through the process, get them in touch with financial aid and the business office, and talk them through step by step what they need to do.”

Ang insists that each institution must find its own unique approach to serving military students. While one institution might favor a one-stop shop, another might find that a veteran-on-veteran peer support network is what students overwhelmingly want and need.

“I can give you a hundred different examples of the ways institutions are meeting the needs of their military population,” she says. “Some schools have built up counseling centers to help those students who might be struggling with the transition to civilian or personal family life. Other institutions are giving veterans priority registration.”

With so many examples from which to choose, Business Officer zeroed in on four systems that are rolling out the welcome mat to better serve returning veterans and their dependents.

Mentors Make Sense

When she started work at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), Murfreesboro, in spring 2012, Heather A. Conrad didn’t have an instruction book. In fact, VetSuccess on Campus, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), was still in its early stages of development.

“As soon as the VA decided to roll out the program across the country, MTSU took the bull by the horns, applied for the program, and became the first school in the state of Tennessee—and the 12th nationally—to adopt the program,” says Conrad, who is a counselor with VetSuccess on Campus, at MTSU.

Conrad spends much of her time on outreach and counseling, focusing on both adjustment and crisis. “Veterans think it will be an easy transition until they step foot on campus,” she says. “Then it dawns on them—it’s not that easy. If we’re going to lose them, we usually lose them within the first six to 12 months. That’s where we try to step in and provide outreach and make veterans realize there is campus support for them.”

One aspect of the program that took off like wildfire is veteran-on-veteran peer support, which originated when Conrad asked a GI, “Would you be interested in a mentor or somebody to talk to if you’re having a bad day?” The support network, which started off with two mentors, now employs 13, all hired through the VA’s work-study program. “They get minimum wage, but it’s tax free and doesn’t affect any of their other benefits,” she says. “They can work up to 25 hours per week.”

To ensure students stay up to speed with academics, MTSU also has rolled out a veteran-on-veteran tutoring program for math, science, and English—classes that can spell trouble for some veterans—as well as an academic alert program.

“Every semester I get a list of veterans who are falling below a certain GPA,” Conrad says. “When we reach out to them, we find most often it’s not that they don’t have the academic ability to be successful, but it’s some kind of problem—a marital, financial, or undiagnosed mental health issue. If we can fix or address the social problem before they are put on academic probation, they can go on to be successful.”

To ensure student veterans can get into their required classes, MTSU leaders petitioned the state—and the governor signed into law—legislation specifying that all veterans attending a state university in Tennessee would get priority registration.

“They can get the classes they want, and use the GI benefit to the best of their ability,” says Hilary Miller, interim director of the veterans and military center, and manager of recruitment and resources for the college of liberal arts. “These men and women have served and are ready to get on with their lives. We don’t want to hold them up.”

Miller points out that for the fall of 2014, MTSU had a total undergraduate, full-time population of 20,156, of which 735 were veterans and 213 were dependents of veterans. “This means about 5 percent of our full-time students are veterans. This is important when you consider the national average for military service is around 1 percent,” she says. “I love that our school outpaces the rest of the country in this regard. For me, the military is the best leadership training program out there, and veterans are a pleasure to have on our campus. We want them here.”

Tie a Yellow Ribbon

During the past 10 to 15 years, Mike Callan has noticed a welcome change in attitude toward the military. “I’m very glad to see that America is doing almost a 180 in support of its military and recognizing the sacrifices they have made for our nation,” says the associate vice president for military and government programs, Webster University, St. Louis.

A brigadier general who, in 2011, retired after 30 years in the Air Force, Callan points out that graduation rates for military and veteran students are slightly higher than that of the general population. “Our military students are a disciplined and mature bunch, who tend to maintain a full courseload to stay on track,” he says. “For those using the Post-9/11 Bill, the goal is to get through graduation before their benefits expire.”

Webster University, which has more than 60 extended campuses from coast to coast, has 22,000 students enrolled in its network, of which about 3,000 are active military and 2,000 are veterans. To ensure its commitment to the veteran population stays strong, Webster enrolled as one of the VA’s Yellow Ribbon institutions, a voluntary program in which institutions participate with the VA to make up any difference between GI benefits and tuitions.

The result: “Veterans pay no out-of-pocket tuition costs,” Callan says. At Webster, the Yellow Ribbon benefit is available for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs.

In 2013, Webster established an office of military affairs, a focal point location that Callan describes as a place “veterans can call home and can talk all the military jargon they want.”

As part of its VetSuccess on Campus role, Webster University provides office space to a full-time VA representative—an Army veteran with a master’s degree in counseling whose job is to figure out anything dealing with the VA. “He addresses every question from cradle to grave that a veteran may have about the VA process,” Callan says. “About 20 to 30 percent of his time is spent on education-related matters. He also provides counseling and helps veterans to access the medical system, if they are having issues.”

A West Coast Welcome

Classroom dynamics are an important factor for veteran academic success, points out Patrick C. O’Rourke, director, active duty and veterans affairs services, office of the chancellor, California State University, Long Beach.

“A military classroom demands strict attention and regimented behavior,” he explains. “That’s not how our classes operate in public higher education. Nonveteran students may be distracted with their computers or cell phones. For a transitioning veteran—who has lived in a very disciplined culture—the college classroom typically requires a completely different code of behavior from military service. It is important for our faculty to understand how veterans may differ from their nonveteran students.”

In 2013–14, the California State University System received an estimated $30 million in federal aid for various military assistance and VA programs. Based on benefit certification data, O’Rourke estimates that student veterans make up about 1.7 percent of the system’s 447,000 students and almost 3 percent when counting the dependents of veterans.

California, which has a large veteran population, has passed several significant legislative policies related to student veterans. “In California public higher education, the resident dependents of qualified veterans can receive their college tuition free,” he says. “The CalVet Fee Waiver for qualified dependents of veterans represents a tremendous savings.”

Veterans applying for admission must meet GPA and other CSU criteria, he says, but special admission rules do apply. “Veterans do not have to be counted against special admissions quotas,” he explains. One CSU campus, he adds, treats veterans as though they were local students, giving them a slight increase in their GPA so they can be more competitive. He points out that more than 90 percent of Cal State’s undergraduate veterans transfer from the California community college system.

“Students are encouraged during the application process to submit their joint service transcripts to the credit evaluation office on campus,” he says. “Trained staff evaluate their military service based on the American Council on Education’s military online guide, which is really the gold standard.”

While educational leaders want to give credit where credit is due, O’Rourke admits that awarding too much elective credit to upper-division student veterans can cause problems. For example, he says, if a required course isn’t available and a veteran has no more elective credits to meet the full-time student status, he or she could lose GI Bill funding. “These are very complex situations, which is why it is so important for our campuses to have somebody who is knowledgeable and skilled in counseling veterans.”

Currently, only three of the system’s 23 campuses have been authorized for a VetSuccess on Campus counselor. O’Rourke hopes to convince the VA that more campuses should be afforded counselors in FY16, when funding authorization is scheduled to begin again.

While he fully supports benefits being awarded to veterans, O’Rourke admits that the processes associated with managing benefit certifications, memorandums of understanding, and legislative initiatives can be exhausting. Particularly for small, rural campuses, he says, it can be difficult to find the resources to assign a full-time person to manage all of the programs and initiatives relating to veterans. “With every new change come new challenges for our campuses,” he explains.

Overcoming the Big Three

While working with veterans, Cheryl Miller has noticed three serious problems: suicide, homelessness, and unemployment. “It’s sad to say that almost all of them have experienced one or two friends who have committed suicide,” says Miller, virtual campus liaison, Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), Arnold, Md. “While suicide is at the top of the list, second is homelessness. Two semesters ago, we helped a homeless student, who was married and had a child, to get into a shelter.”

The third challenge facing veterans, she says, is finding work. “That’s a big one. The GI Bill doesn’t cover everything. A lot of veterans need to work while they are attending school. Many are attending school to increase skills or acquire new skills, because they are unable to find work.”

Last fall, when AACC enrollment topped 15,000, about 1,000 students were classified as military or veteran. The college has a presence at the Fort George G. Meade Army installation, providing full college services to active duty military, veterans, and dependents.

In addition, AACC participates in GoArmyEd, the Air Force’s General Education Mobile (GEM) initiative, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts Program (MyCAA).

Several years ago, when leaders foresaw an increase in its military and veteran population, the college assembled the military and veteran coordinating council, which Miller coordinates.

“All areas of the college are fully represented,” Miller explains. “The council meets every six weeks during the academic year, looking at what we offer and making recommendations for improvement.” Miller also oversees the military and veteran resource center, student/veteran ambassador program, and the Facebook page for military and veteran students.

Among the military-friendly programs and services AACC offers are:

“Our focus,” says Miller, “is all about student success and retention.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


SECTION II: EXPANDING ACADEMICS

Full-Circle Solutions

Picking Up the Pace of the Completion Agenda

While one institution might favor a one-stop shop, another might find that a veteran-on-veteran peer support network is what students overwhelmingly want and need.