Soldier to Student, Then and Now

Many more colleges either have or aspire to create services dedicated to student veterans and active-duty military members, according to a survey. But institutions also say budgets are an issue.

July 26, 2012

Four years after the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides financial aid and housing to active-duty service members and veterans attending college, more institutions are providing services and programs designed specifically for those students -- and even more aspire to do so in the long term, a new study shows.

But the same study also found that many of those colleges struggle with budget constraints that may impede their progress.

The American Council on Education’s follow-up to its 2009 report is meant to gauge how institutions have responded to changes in the G.I. Bill and increases in the number of veterans enrolling in college, as more than 2 million soldiers make a transition to civilian life after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 500,000 veterans and their families have received financial aid under the GI Bill.

Young Kim, one of the study’s authors and an ACE research analyst, noted that the report “is not meant to be a nationally representative sample.” Institutions that already offer programs and services are more likely to respond to the survey, he cautioned. Public institutions compose nearly three-quarters of respondents (34 percent were two-year colleges and 38 percent were four-year). Just 24 percent of respondents were private four-years.

“That being said, I think we’re very happy with the progress that institutions of higher education have made so far,” Young said. “That doesn’t mean we’re happy with the current results, and I think there’s still some room for improvement.”

The survey, From Soldier to Student II: Assessing Campus Programs for Veterans and Service Members, includes responses from 690 institutions. While 71 percent of them said providing programs and services for specifically veterans was part of their long-term strategy, only 62 percent currently offer them, a slight rise from 57 percent in 2009.

Assessing Campus Programs for Veterans and Service Members
  2009   2012  
  57% Institutions with programs and services for military service members and veterans 62%  
  57% Institutions whose long-term strategic plans include such programs 71%  
  357 Average active-military student
and veteran enrollment per institution
  49% Institutions with programs
that include a dedicated office
for military/veteran students
Source: "From Soldier to Student II" study

Previous studies have found that student veterans who receive support services are retained and graduate at rates higher than those of their peers. 

The study acknowledges, though, that it’s not a great time for institutions to be spending money on new programs. But Young said it should still be doable, and he pointed to the growth since the first survey as evidence.

“2009 was not by any measure an easy financial environment for lots of institutions -- in fact, if you want to say, it was a very dire situation for some institutions,” Young said. “Our results show that slightly more than half of institutions indicated that institutional funding is a challenge. We recognize that. But at the same time, I think so far the data also indicate that despite the financial challenges, schools have found ways to build support systems for veterans.”

The average number of active-duty students and veterans at the responding institutions has more than doubled since 2009, the survey shows. On average, each institution enrolls about 453 active-duty military students and 370 veteran students today, compared to 201 and 156, respectively, three years ago.

Far more institutions this time around reported that they’re considering “veteran-friendly changes” as part of their long-term strategic plans: 71 percent said so in 2012, 28 percent more than in 2009. And 64 percent said they are “engaging in recruiting efforts” specifically to attract military service members and veterans.

Brian Hawthorne, who sits on the Student Veterans of America’s board of directors, was pleased that more colleges are both recruiting and serving veterans. But he emphasized the importance of the latter.

“We encourage schools to do what they can, and we also know that recruiting student veterans should be matched with supporting student veterans. We don’t want you to just advertise because it looks good,” Hawthorne said. “We want you to recruit student veterans because they add to diversity on campus, and because you want them as part of your student body, and then you want to allocate the necessary resources to retain and help that population succeed.”

The findings do not indicate that colleges are doing otherwise, he added.

The report notes that the presence of programs specifically for veterans “seems to largely correspond” to whether those students are included in the strategic plan. While private nonprofit colleges increased such programs by 15 percent since 2009, public four-years increased programs by just 1 percent, and public two-year colleges reported a decline in such programs, from 67 percent to 59 percent. “The reason for this is unclear,” the report says.

Community colleges have historically enrolled veterans at rates higher than other types of institutions.

Still, more colleges are employing staff specifically to work with veterans in their college transition now than were in 2009: that percentage rose from 52 to 69. However, the authors said it was “somewhat surprising” that fewer than half of institutions with military/veteran programs offer professional development training for faculty and administrators (although 28 percent said they’re developing such opportunities).

The total number of institutions intending to add staffing in veteran services and programs, requiring a budget increase for said programs, nearly doubled since 2009, from 29 percent to 53 percent in 2012. Most significant was the increase among private nonprofits, from 17 to 46 percent. Despite the fact that programs are actually declining at community colleges, more of those institutions reported wanting to increase their budgets for those services: 47 percent, up from 29 percent in 2009.

“Given the ongoing, severe budget problems at public colleges and universities, this signals their continuing commitment to veteran and military students even through an era of state disinvestment in higher education,” the report says. “It is encouraging to see that both expanding programs and services and educating faculty and staff on the needs of military personnel and veterans continue to be top priorities.”

Hawthorne said that because the G.I. Bill saves colleges money in the form of financial aid for these students, money that would otherwise have been spent on aid for them should instead go to fund veteran services.

“What we don’t want to see is an increased enrollment,” Hawthorne said, “but not an increase in attention and programmatic funding and capability. Because we know that student veterans come with money. We know that the G.I. Bill is a good deal for the schools. So we want that funding.”

The Obama administration signed an executive order in April requiring the Department of Defense to set rules for recruiting at military installations, and restricting use of the term "G.I. Bill" in marketing and recruitment. The administration said many for-profit colleges were using the bill to market to prospective students, even when they didn't offer benefits under the legislation.

“This finding merits further exploration,” the authors wrote. “Institutions may be hiring from a pool of already trained staff, but without further research, no firm conclusion can be drawn.”

The report says an office or department dedicated exclusively to serving military students and veterans is “important” and – despite the aforementioned budget and infrastructure concerns – “can more efficiently centralize both administrative expertise and benefit processing.”

But those offices are focusing less – or at least not exclusively – on those administrative issues, which include VA benefits counseling and financial aid and enrollment assistance. Instead, colleges report structuring their veteran offices more as student centers, which might include a place for veterans to gather, study and relax. The percentage of institutions with administrative models dropped from 66 to 44 percent, while the percentage of student center models rose shot up from 14 to 46 percent. (Other types of structures are more blended models, with staff from different departments working together but not necessarily in the same office.)

Among the study's other findings:

  • Eighty-four percent of institutions that offer services for veteran and military students provide counseling to assist with post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to only 16 percent in 2009.
  • Fifty-five percent of those same colleges have staff trained to assist with physical disabilities, up from 33 percent in 2009, and 36 percent have staff trained to assist with brain injuries, up from 23 percent in 2009.
  • Only about a third of institutions with services for military students and veterans -- 37 percent -- provide transition assistance, despite the fact that 55 percent said "social acculturation" was a priority.
  • Fifty-four percent of institutions said raising faculty and staff sensitivity to the unique issues student veterans face is a priority.
  • Twenty-eight percent of institutions with programs and services for military personnel have developed expedited re-enrollment procedures for students who have to deploy and then return to campus.


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