April 14, 2011. Veteran students represent a growing demographic of college students, and that demographic is likely to grow further as more military members return to the states from the overseas wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking college degrees and transitions into the civilian workforce. Yet veterans (and military students in general) face unique challenges in the transition from combat to the classroom, and colleges and universities face continuing challenges in supporting veteran students and integrating them effectively into the campus community.
Two challenges in particular stand out:
- Many veterans continue to feel isolated on college campuses
- Many veterans face confusion over their GI Bill benefits
Both of these challenges impact the likelihood of retention and degree completion. The first is an obstacle to securing peer support that would improve academic performance, and the second is a barrier to the financial viability of degree completion. An article in USA Today this week highlighted some of the measures colleges are taking to make their campuses "military-friendly" -- measures such as peer mentoring programs, special orientation sessions, and establishing veterans centers on campus.
To learn more about where colleges can see the greatest impact on academic performance and retention for veteran students, we turned to Don Pfeffer, director of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, Higher Education Veterans Programs. Pfeffer emphasizes three critical steps:
- Be proactive in clarifying benefits for veteran students
- Establish a veterans resource center on campus
- Audit your academic policies and processes to remove common and unnecessary obstacles to veterans' success
There are multiple opportunities for confusion over benefits:
- Changes to benefits may leave students confused as to which GI bill applies to them (for example, after August 1, 2011, the amount of benefits received will be decreased if a student applies a separate scholarship to tuition and fees)
- Students may not understand that not all courses are covered by their benefits and may unknowingly risk their tuition stipend
- Many students on campus who have served in the military do not self-identify themselves as military, and may not be aware that they remain eligible for benefits
Offering webcasts or online resources that walk students through the benefits is a step, but many students are likely to have specific questions. "Your students need accurately and timely information about what benefits they are eligible for, and what they do and don't apply to," Pfeffer remarks. "You need to have someone who can give them up-to-date information."
Staffing and resourcing this effort takes some forethought. An institution can either invest in having a staff member available to research benefits and provide timely feedback to veteran students, or the institution can partner with or direct students to an external organization that is equipped to do the research. For example, MyMilitaryEducation.org, a public site created by the Department of Veterans Affairs in Minnesota, maintains an extensive database of benefits information that allows it to respond to 90 percent of queries electronically; the other 10 percent are handled through a call center. While the organization is based in Minnesota, it can be a useful resource to students in other states because most benefits are federal.
Establish a Veterans Resource Center
A community site for veterans to gather on campus can empower students to share information, respond to one another's needs, and relieve stress. It provides a venue for veterans to discuss shared concerns, share tips on dealing with a faculty member who is not very supportive of military students, and discuss which classes fit specific learning styles. Pfeffer suggests that the informal peer mentoring that occurs once you have a center where veterans can gather is a significant contributor to student success and persistence.
A veterans center also serves as a safe, supportive community place where military students can go for other forms of assistance at times when they don't feel comfortable contacting campus offices that could refer them to services. Pfeffer notes that many veteran students -- particularly those with families -- struggle to keep food on the table at home. You can help relieve stress and anxiety that would distract your students from their studies by offering basic food items through your veterans center. This can be done very inexpensively by establishing partnerships in your local community. Here are two examples from Central Lakes College:
- An arrangement with Pizza Hut ensures a weekly delivery of 20 to 30 pounds of frozen buffet pizza
- Through the Fair Share program, local churches donate low-cost food packages to the veterans center, which the center then distributes to military student families who need food
A veterans center can also serve to alert the institution early when a student is facing other difficulties. "One new trend," Pfeffer notes, "is that every semester, we see two or three individuals who are either living in their car or are about to be homeless because they can no longer pay their rent. They have a lot of pride, many of them have families, and they don't come to us until it's almost too late."
The obstacle at many institutions will be finding funding to staff the veterans center. Pfeffer, however, suggests creative solutions:
- Invite volunteers from the local community
- Establish work study positions
- Invite staff from various campus functions to assist on a rolling basis (perhaps a counselor staffs the center one day, an admissions officer the next day, an official to discuss benefits the day after that)
By asking different offices to dedicate a portion of staff time to the center each week, you can continue to operate the center without huge outlays of money (and in a way that boosts veterans' access to key support services). "If you are willing to invest in the retention and academic success of veteran students," Pfeffer remarks, "this is how to do it on a limited budget."
To learn more about veterans centers, read our January 2010 article "Make Your Veterans Resources Center Effective."
Audit Your Academic Policies
Are your policies military-friendly? It is easy to answer yes, but have you ever personally walked through your policies and procedures along with a student? Do that. You'll learn quickly where you have policies that ease the workload for your staff but add hurdles for students. Audit your processes and limit the number of contacts a student needs to make in order to get something done.
Don Pfeffer, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs
Pfeffer offers two examples to illustrate the point:
- Do you offer options for military students who are called back to active duty to complete their courses without penalty? Pfeffer remarks, "If a student is deployed, they need to be able to leave without worrying that they will fail their courses."
- Do you have a deferral of payment policy in place for individuals who are waiting for delayed benefits to arrive? Does the policy cover expenses other than tuition and fees (textbooks, housing for an on-campus student, etc.)
A little care given ahead of time to removing obstacles and "red tape" can pay off later in student retention and in the reputation of your institution as a military-friendly campus.