ORLANDO -- The disparity between college administrators' desire to help student veterans succeed and their ability to do that is becoming more apparent as the issue gains increased attention.
According to the Department of Defense, 325,000 active duty service members were enrolled in college courses in 2011. Institutions expect that number will continue to rise as more soldiers returning from Afghanistan utilize their Post-9/11 GI Bill federal tuition benefits, for which 2 million veterans are eligible.
As a result, more colleges are starting up student veterans' centers or hiring staff specifically to serve this demographic, but they still encounter issues  related to funding, trust and lack of understanding.
At a private gathering here at the annual conference  of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, college leaders discussed the findings of a recent survey by the association and InsideTrack. While it was clear that identifying and retaining active duty military and student veterans is a goal for these campuses, some are struggling with how to do it effectively.
Three out of four institutions have either an office or staff member focused exclusively on active duty military and student veteran affairs, according to the NASPA survey, yet only one in four report having "a detailed understanding of the root causes" of those students' withdrawing or dropping out.
"Although institutions increasingly recognize the need to more effectively support active duty and student veterans, there is a limited understanding of how best to design support initiatives," says the report, whose preliminary findings  were reported in December by Inside Higher Ed. (The online survey's 231 respondents represent an array of institution types, locations and sizes.)
And despite this recognition, only one in three institutions track student veteran retention and/or completion separately from the overall student body. The fact that 38 percent of those institutions claim to have goals for improving retention and completion over the next two years seems to be in conflict with this finding.
Meeting at the convention, student affairs officials said there's no one perfect model, but there are a few thoughts to keep in mind.
First is knowing who the veterans are on your campus. Because they can be invisible if they don't use their federal benefits, it's important to catch them in the application process. Asking whether a prospective student has ever been affiliated with U.S. armed services is better than asking whether they are a veteran, because research shows many students wrongly believe they're not veterans if they've never been in combat.
One veterans' center employee at the meeting said that using that intake questionnaire revealed his campus actually had 20 to 30 percent more veterans enrolled than previously thought.
Also important is building trust with the students -- knowing how to support them without attacking them, and understanding that they want to be treated the same as everyone else.
"Nobody wants to be labeled an at-risk student," said Dave Jarrat, vice president of marketing at InsideTrack.
Still, not all institutions consider this a priority, the survey showed. About 20 percent said understanding active duty military student dropout is "not an issue" given their campus's student body, and 10 percent said the same of student veterans.
Among colleges that had initiatives to improve retention and completion rates, only 5 percent said they had data to show they were successful. Another 31 percent said their initiatives seemed to be successful but they could not prove it.
"Making real progress will require an effective system for collecting and analyzing data across institutions," the report says.
Among the report's recommendations: Data-driven decision making; coordination across functional boundaries, such as registrars, financial aid officers and faculty; and proactive support.
John D. Mikelson, chair of NASPA's Veterans Knowledge Community, said a better tracking mechanism is an essential first step to better serving student veterans. Asked whether he felt the issue was gaining unprecedented traction, he said, "I definitely think so, and I think it's been a long time coming."