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When student veterans are supported by their colleges and universities, their grades, retention and graduation rates are higher than those of their peers, according to a study released Thursday.

The report, “Completing the Mission: A Pilot Study of Veteran Students’ Progress Toward Degree Attainment in the Post 9/11 Era,” examined a sample of 200 of the 6,400 student veterans studying at seven public institutions across the country during the 2010-11 academic year. Operation College Promise and the Pat Tillman Foundation jointly prepared the report.

More than 500,000 veterans have used the benefits offered to them through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides financial help for student veterans, since August 2009, according to the report. That number is likely to rise, the report says, as more troops are withdrawn from Iraq and as the job outlook dims with a still-faltering economy.

The universities chosen for the study -- Arizona State University, Mississippi State University, Montclair State University, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Texas State University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and University of South Florida -- all offer solid student support to veterans, said Wendy Lang, director of Operation College Promise, a military-focused organization created by the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. About 90 percent of the 200 students examined in the report were enrolled full-time, Lang said.

The study found:

  • Student veterans were earning an average grade point average of 3.04.
  • The retention rate from fall 2010 to spring 2011 was 94 percent, above the national average of 75 percent for first- to second-year retention.
  • About 71 percent of students earned all of the credits they pursued, with an average of 24 credits for the academic year.

“The concern is that it’s one thing to get a veteran student to a college campus, but if that veteran student gets to campus and doesn’t receive support services they will not get a degree,” she said. “And that’s the real tragic loss.”

Lang said veterans lose the benefits they receive through the GI Bill, like a housing allowance, when they drop out, which puts them in greater danger of not finding employment. 

And the down financial climate, by turn, makes creating support services for veterans on campuses difficult, she said. Lang said Operation College Promise works with institutions to help find ways to retrofit services they already have to assist veterans, too.

The report states that students in this current population of student veterans are more likely than their peers to be first-generation college students, male, married and with at least one dependent.

Lang said these veterans often had never considered going to college.  But the increase in veteran enrollment may signal a positive change for those service members, she said.

Hunter Riley, director of programs at the Pat Tillman Foundation, said he hopes this first step will shed light on the fact that there needs to be more investment in the education of veterans. The GI Bill, like any federal program, has its limits and flaws.

He said the researchers would like to continue to follow this cohort of student veterans as they maneuver their way through the higher education system. He’d also like to branch out and examine student veterans at institutions that do not offer a wide array of support services to offer comparative data.

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