By Dr. Joe May
When Congress enacted the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009, its purpose was to grant greater benefits to student veterans and, to a large extent, that goal has been achieved. These expanded GI Bill benefits allow veterans to more adequately cover the cost of a college education by providing them with up to 36 months of educational benefits, including a monthly housing allowance, a stipend for books and supplies, and an option to transfer benefits to family members.
This “new” GI Bill also helps schools. For instance, the federal government matches the dollar contribution of every participating institution for all costs not covered by the legislation.
Yet in spite of provisions for generous benefits, many veterans do not take advantage of the GI Bill to pay for college. Studies have found only about 40 percent of student veterans actually use the educational benefits provided by the GI Bill.
Reaching out to student veterans and showing them how to access and effectively use their GI Bill benefits helps them build new lives and careers. That’s something which a close-knit group of community colleges across the United States wants to do. Those schools formed an organization, Rebuilding America’s Middle Class, several years ago, and RAMC members believe in grass roots efforts to rebuild the country through education and economic development. Helping student veterans is an important part of this effort.
At some types of institutions, veterans are very hard to find. The Associated Press recently reported that Ivy League schools are struggling to enroll veterans. Harvard, for example, counts only three veterans in its undergraduate liberal arts program and Princeton only one.
One thing is certain: Veterans and community colleges have found each other. Nearly 45 percent of veterans who are receiving education benefits attend public two-year institutions, more than double the percentage attending any other type of school.
The reason is simple – there are many positive aspects to attending community college, and schools have become more adept at promoting those positives. And to attract even more student veterans, community colleges are emphasizing veteran-specific financial and support services, acceptance of military credit, and strong career pathways connected to community partners, job training, and apprenticeships.
Nevertheless, community colleges can and must do more. So on this Veteran’s Day, we at Rebuilding America’s College Class: A Coalition of Community Colleges recommend several steps to tighten the embrace that veterans deserve; by doing that, we can reduce the stress levels that student veterans experience about paying for college. We believe that community colleges should commit to:
- Increasing the visibility of Veterans Affairs offices and officials. Student veterans usually seek assistance with admissions, financial aid, and other services. Whenever these services are located across campus in different locations, it may be hard for the veterans to locate and use them effectively. Identifying an entry “portal” for student veterans is a critical strategy for meeting veterans’ specific needs.
- Offering specialized orientations or college success courses for student veterans. Specialized orientations may be useful in identifying student veterans, especially for campuses that do not have a designated Veterans Affairs office. Once student veterans self-identify, they can be connected to campus professionals who provide financial aid and other support services.
- Finding creative ways for student veterans to interact. A number of community colleges offers organizations that enable veterans to interact with one another, and such programs should become universal. And when student veterans voice interest in student organizations more broadly, they should be welcomed.
- Raising campus awareness of veterans’ needs through campus-wide forums and faculty/staff training. Many student veterans have a strong desire to be acknowledged and understood by faculty and staff, particularly when they are facing academic or health challenges. By providing faculty and staff with the proper training, community colleges can better prepare faculty, staff, and counselors/advisors to assist and meet the needs of student veterans.
- Increasing military training credit articulation. Articulation of military training by higher education institutions ensures that student veterans are granted appropriate academic credit for military learning experiences. As a result, increasing military articulation agreements offered by community colleges also may increase enrollment and program completion among those student veterans.
Certainly these recommendations are not the be-all and end-all of serving veterans at our institutions, and more research is needed on student veterans across the board. For example, a lack of information exists about student veterans’ college retention, completion, and success rates across varying types of higher education institutions. Many institutions collect limited data on student veterans’ retention and completion rates; even fewer break down data on retention and completion by race, gender, income, and other characteristics that may relate to college success.
No doubt, better tracking is needed of the student veteran population and, in particular, we need to know more about how student veterans experience community college and the services that they provide. Community college administrations and institutional researchers should embark on efforts to collect data – both quantitative and qualitative, from online surveys to student focus groups – to track the experiences of student veterans and also to understand how their experiences have an impact on educational outcomes. Demonstrating this important attention to detail would be our single best way to say to America’s veterans: “Thank you for your service.”
Dr. Joe May is Chancellor, Dallas County (TX) Community College District; and President, Rebuilding America’s Middle Class.