How to Become One of the Best Colleges for Veterans and Military Students

Best Colleges for Veterans - Symbolic Image of an Eagle

by Susan West Engelkemeyer, President, Nichols College

While the number of recent high school graduates is shrinking, the pool of military veterans eligible for federal education funds continues to deepen. Certainly the presence of these students does their alma maters proud, but there is much more to being military friendly than thanking them for their service. Providing a college education that meets their particular needs takes work, planning, and a long-term commitment to fulfilling what’s expected of military friendly schools.

A leading arbiter of how well colleges are doing on this front is Military Friendly (formerly Victory Media), a marketing and advocacy firm that publishes data-driven ratings for post-military education and career opportunities.   Every year, the company compiles a list containing the top 15 percent of the thousands of universities, colleges, and trade schools it surveys.  In 2018, 800 schools—including Nichols College—made the cut in four divisions ranging from pre-Bronze and Bronze to Silver and Gold.

Here’s how we achieved that status — and what you can learn from our efforts. We will cover what we’ve done so farwhat we’re doing next, and what you can do on your own campus.

What We’ve Done So Far

Since 2015 we have held our own in the pre-Bronze category (which Military Friendly identifies as schools designated for future progress).  Over the next several years, we are aiming to ascend to Silver, a rank held by fewer than 100 institutions.  Along the way we plan to double our enrollment of vets and their spouses or children (the law permits recipients to transfer educational benefits to immediate family members).

A number of factors—some directed at veterans and others available to our entire student body—have led to our being recognized as military friendly:

  1. Waiving the admissions application fee.
  2. Awarding college credit for military training and experience.
  3. Offering online courses, which enable veterans with work or family obligations to more easily pursue their degrees.
  4. Participating in the national Yellow Ribbon Program, through which we fund tuition beyond the annual $23,000 cap provided by the federal government.
  5. Supporting veteran students through a strong academic resource center; an active advising program; close relationships between students and professors; and a comprehensive career services office, all of which count in evaluating schools as military friendly.
  6. Streamlining the bureaucratic process of confirming enrollment status, securing tuition payments, and expediting students’ receipt of living expenses provided by the federal government.

What We’re Doing Next

Now that we’ve gotten our marching boots under us, we’re making the effort to advance beyond our basic training.  We’ve added several faculty and staff members who have served in the military and can serve as academic and personal advisors to veteran students.  This past fall we opened our Office of Veteran and Military Services, which is fulfilling a range of functions:

  • Contacting vets as soon as they apply, and staying in regular touch through their application process, acceptance, and enrollment.
  • Representing Nichols at college fairs organized specifically for veterans.
  • Tapping into our partnerships with four nearby community colleges—which count almost 500 of these students among their ranks.
  • Working with our counseling and advising programs to raise awareness of issues and problems that veteran students may experience as college students.
  • Maintaining contact with and linking students to local veterans organizations.
  • Developing social opportunities for our largely older veteran cohort and creating a space for them to gather.

As we pursue silver status in the military friendly rankings, I’ve also sent a letter to the Military Affairs Team at the U.S. Department of Education committing Nichols to their “8 Keys to Veterans’ Success” program and its requirements.

  1. Create a culture of trust and connectedness across the campus community to promote well-being and success for veterans.
  2. Ensure consistent and sustained support from campus leadership.
  3. Implement an early alert system to ensure all veterans receive academic, career, and financial advice before challenges become overwhelming.
  4. Coordinate and centralize campus efforts for all veterans, together with the creation of a designated space for them (even if limited in size).
  5. Collaborate with local communities and organizations, including government agencies, to align and coordinate various services for veterans.
  6. Utilize a uniform set of data tools to collect and track information on veterans, including demographics, retention, and degree completion.
  7. Provide comprehensive professional development for faculty and staff on issues and challenges unique to veterans.
  8. Develop systems that ensure sustainability of effective practices for veterans.

We’re already fulfilling the mandates to work with community organizations and local veterans’ agencies and to “create a culture of trust and connectedness across the campus community,” especially for these non-traditional, older students. One member of the Class of 2018, who served for 15 years in the U.S. Air Force, recently told me, “Most of the students here are fresh out of high school, and I was concerned about being the ‘old lady’ on campus.  But whenever I engaged with my classmates, they treated me like any other student, and I fell right in with them.”

In turn, the maturity and life experience these students bring to our campus and classrooms have become a welcome bonus.  They already have accomplished much by dint of their service; they are serious about completing their undergraduate education; they display an outsize sense of responsibility and discipline; and they bring the organizational skills emphasized in their military training.

The latter attribute has proved invaluable, as many of our veterans face the challenge of combining their studies with family life and jobs.

It has also helped that our college has a strong leadership program—with a required Leadership 101 course for first year students and a robust Emerging Leaders Program thereafter—which picks up where veterans’ military careers leave off.

Of course, these older students return the favor of providing their existing leadership skills inside the classroom and out.  They serve as positive role models for their younger peers and provide good sounding boards for life beyond graduation. On a higher level, they convey the importance and value of service to our country.

On so many fronts, engaging with our military “heroes” has been well worth it.

Related Resource: Read the article “5 Strengths Military-Connected Students Bring to Your Campus” by Tanya Ang (ACE) and Bruce Kelley (University of South Dakota).

What You Can Do

Here are five quick checklists. You may have done some of these already, or many of them, or none of them. Regardless, use these checklists–and this story of Nichols College’s road toward being military friendly–to start some critical conversations with colleagues on your campus.

1. Start with the low hanging fruit

  • Waive applications fees and other minor requirements.
  • Provide college credit for aspects of military experience.
  • Become a Yellow Ribbon school. If you already belong to the program, consider increasing the amount of financial aid you provide annually.
  • Encourage and facilitate relationships between veteran—and often older—students and their professors, the academic resource center, and academic counselors.
  • Identify faculty and staff with military experience to serve as advisors and offer any other help veteran students might need.

2. Make the administrative part seamless

  • Choose a point person in the registrar’s office to work with the appropriate federal agencies to fund tuition and matriculate new students.
  • If needed, make an effort at the beginning of the term to expedite the delivery of federal housing allowances, which can lag behind tuition payments.
  • Anticipate red tape and glitches in the process, and resolve any problems promptly.

3. Increase your recruiting efforts

  • Initiate personal contact as soon as veterans apply and maintain that connection through their acceptance and enrollment.
  • Attend regional and local college fairs specifically for veterans.
  • Target nearby two-year colleges, which often have large numbers of veteran students living in your geographic area.

4. Coordinate services for veteran students and raise awareness about their particular needs by creating a fulltime position (or office) to accomplish the following:

  • Provide a central resource for veteran students.
  • Collaborate with academic advisors to monitor academic progress and problems of individual students.
  • Expand recruitment and retention efforts.
  • Create a pipeline to keep high-level administrators informed about issues, problems, and initiatives and to serve as a veterans advocate.
  • Connect with outside veterans organizations and government programs.

5. Take “military friendly” to the next level:

  • Survey the needs of your veteran cohort.
  • Respond with new services or adjustments to present services.
  • Commit to fulfilling the “8 Keys to Veterans’ Success” published by the U.S. Department of Education.