Advocating for student veterans is a critical responsibility for institutions — not only for their enrollment numbers and budgets but also to ensure that student veterans succeed in and out of the classroom.
This is especially crucial as student vets navigate their life roles during a pandemic.
Today, approximately 900,000 student veterans enroll in institutions of higher education each year. That’s largely thanks to the G.I. Bill, which, in 1944, expanded access to higher education for service members, veterans, and their dependents through stipends for tuition and other expenses for college or trade schools.
I consulted Joe Schumacher, director of veterans services at Montana State University, Bozeman. Joe is a US Army veteran and is an extremely passionate advocate for student vets.
(and psst, check out our podcast episode with Joe!)
What are the unique challenges facing student veterans?
Recent data on student veterans provides interesting insights into the obstacles they commonly face. Here are some of the most notable trends.
Low enrollment levels at not-for-profit institutions
- Only 13% of the 5.1 million post-9/11 veterans are currently using their educational benefits and only 37% have earned an associate’s degree or higher.
- Student veterans are overwhelmingly represented at for-profit institutions, making up 20% of their student populations.
- Student veterans are much more likely to enroll at low-graduation-rate institutions (determined by the 6-year graduation rate for a bachelor’s degree).
- Although campus culture often caters to 18-22-year-old undergraduate students, the average starting age for student veterans is 25.
- 47% of student veterans are parents and 47% are married.
- As a result of their non-academic responsibilities, student veterans are less likely to invest time outside of the classroom on activities that they deem inessential to their degree completion.
Logistical & financial challenges
- Frequent moves across the country (which are common as a result of service relocations) can make it challenging for veterans to establish residency in any one state for purposes of qualifying for in-state tuition rates.
- Deployments can also cause loss of scholarships, tuition dollars, and academic credits.
- Confusing financial aid processes and delays in VA benefits can discourage student veterans from completing a degree, especially if they rely on benefits to take breaks from working full time.
Changes in teaching styles
- Student veterans have reported difficulties transitioning from military-style technical learning with a hierarchical organizational structure to a more loosely structured academic learning environment.
Despite all these challenges, student veterans have shown that with the right support, they’re able to succeed. In fact, they are 1.4 times more likely to complete a degree compared to other adult learners, and have an average GPA of 3.34, much higher than the average GPA of 2.94 for all students.
How can student affairs professionals advocate for veteran students?
Advocacy for student veterans can take place in every department; you don’t need to be a director of veterans services.
Joe told me that the foremost way he advocates for student veterans is by certifying their GI bills correctly and on time. Additionally, he provides critical information to the students throughout the process — about timing, the information needed, and different departments to contact with other questions.
Remember: If a GI bill is not certified on time or accurately, the student may not receive their benefits.
Translating higher education
Many student veterans may not be very familiar with common institutional practices, especially if they took time away from their education for their military service.
Joe says that student affairs professionals can help “normalize the idea of utilizing resources” by walking students through (or literally to) a financial aid office for FAFSA questions, providing information on mental health or tutoring services available, or sharing resources related to co-curricular campus engagement.
Joe has observed that student veterans’ sense of service does not go away once their uniform comes off. So, you should encourage student veterans to channel that energy into helping make your community a better place, empowering them to plug in and give back to the campus just as they did for their country.
Having a social space available for student veterans to connect with one another (or staff who are veterans) can help affirm the collective needs and interests of veterans as a student group. Joe oversees the Veterans Center at Montana State, which is a one-stop-shop for student veterans to connect across their intersectional identities, find mentors, study, and gather information on housing, childcare, and other resources.
If your institution doesn’t have the budget or capacity to build a physical space for student veterans, Joe stresses that it’s most important to have a person who can create an emotional and social space for students to turn to.
How can institutions advocate for student veterans on a larger scale?
If you’re seeking to promote the interests of student veterans across departments, take a look at what institutions that have high military-friendly rankings are doing:
- Columbia University provides merit-based aid for student veterans, even those using GI benefits, to cover fees and other college-related expenses. Additionally, Columbia’s flexible transfer policies and consideration of military experience as transfer credit has been a huge attraction for student veterans.
- Joe has made it his mission to advocate for student veterans on and off campus at Montana State. This has come in the form of building connections and attending meetings at the local VFW, American Legion, and Veterans Alliance chapters. He also advocates for student veterans (and veterans in general) by meeting with elected officials on pertinent issues.
- At Goodwin University, student veterans receive priority registration, meaning they can register for classes on the first day of open registration, regardless of the number of credits they’ve obtained. Although this initiative may seem small, it helps ensure that the certification process, which takes about six weeks to process the tuition payment, is paid before the semester starts; with wiggle room for potential hold-ups.
- The University of Texas at San Antonio hosts a veterans orientation program to intentionally ease these students into the institution. Joe describes transitioning into college as a “culture shock” for student veterans, as campus life is so starkly different from military service. UT San Antonio aims to provide student veterans with a map for academic and personal goals while helping them become familiar with the resources available at the institution.
- At the University of Connecticut, student veterans have the option to live in a learning community which helps them transition from military to student life in a supportive environment through peer learning and veteran-focused programming.
- The College of William & Mary has a working group that interconnects campus departments to comprehensively serve veterans. This includes disability services, tutoring, childcare, financial aid, counseling, orientation, and much more — providing streamlined veteran-specific advocacy within each group.
Joe believes that having these departments be aware of challenges specific to student veterans is key for building advocacy across campus. For example, some colleges have veteran-specific tutors, offer priority scheduling for counseling services, and even have a go-to financial aid officer who is well-versed in veteran-specific scholarships or loans.
What additional challenges has COVID-19 presented to student veterans?
Like many students across the nation, Montana State students left for spring break and never returned for the semester. This abrupt change was both devastating and shocking.
Joe acknowledges that it’s hard to replace the in-person interactions at the veterans center with virtual programming; students are no longer able to come together to support each other face to face, exacerbating the culture shock student veterans feel.
Still, communication has been key in advocating for student veterans.
- Joe proactively reached out to students, making sure they knew the veterans center was still available to help, even over a video or phone call.
- The pandemic raised concerns for students whose programs were moved entirely online for the fall semester as fully online students receive less VA benefits. Fortunately, Congress took swift action and drafted a bill that gets us through the end of 2020 with no impact to housing stipends if classes have to move online.
- For concerned students who do not want to take in-person classes into 2021, or have no choice but to take online classes in later semesters, communication with their institution and Veterans Center has been vital.
There is no singular ideal route in advocating for student veterans; what really matters is that faculty and staff aim to support holistic veteran wellness. By providing your student veterans with opportunities for connection, financial stability, and education even when they’re stuck at home, you are still encouraging them to succeed.
How do you support student vets? What questions do you still have about their needs, challenges, and interests? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.