Veterans and COVID-19

Colleges need to focus on recruiting, supporting and graduating student veterans now more than ever, as these students face hardships due to the pandemic, experts say.

December 1, 2020
 
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A recent brief from the American Talent Initiative urges colleges to enroll more students who are military service veterans.

The initiative is a collective of colleges and universities committed to expanding access for more vulnerable students. Its goal is to, by 2025, enroll and graduate 50,000 more lower-income students at colleges that have a six-year graduation rate of at least 70 percent.

This includes student veterans, very few of whom attend colleges with high graduation rates.

Many in higher education are more concerned than ever about this student population due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Student veterans are likely to start their education at community colleges, said Emily Schwartz, program manager at Ithaka S+R and one of the authors of the brief.

Community college enrollment is down by nearly 10 percent, which doesn't bode well. At the same time, enrollment at for-profit colleges remains steady. Historically, these colleges recruit student veterans during economic downturns, according to Schwartz.

"Protecting student veterans from those predatory practices is something that’s going to be really important," she said.

Trace Urdan, managing director at Tyton Partners, said this concern is premature. Just because for-profit colleges are doing well relative to other institutions doesn't mean they are engaging in predatory behavior, he said. Colleges also have to jump through additional hoops to adhere to regulatory frameworks specifically for student veterans.

"I am not of the opinion that veterans are in particular danger relative to other student groups," Urdan said. "I think they have more folks looking out for them."

It's too soon to know how enrollment of student veterans is going. Institutional members of the American Talent Initiative have told Schwartz anecdotally that they have been encouraged by the resilience of student veterans, and thus their enrollment patterns, so far.

But these students are still likely to face barriers due to the pandemic. They're a diverse population, and more likely to be people of color, first-generation students and have children, Schwartz said. All these populations have been hard hit by COVID-19 in various ways.

"What you’re seeing within this population is similar to what you’re seeing in other student populations, especially for post-traditional students," said Tanya Ang, vice president of Veterans Education Success.

They've also faced stress over the legislation that governs their funding for education. The GI Bill, which covers much of the costs for veterans' education and training programs, is complex and adds another layer of stress for student veterans, Schwartz said.

For example, student veterans receiving housing stipends must be taking courses in person. In the spring, Congress passed legislation so that students forced to study online due to the pandemic would continue receiving the full stipends.

That legislation has been extended through December 2021, with the hopes that life will have returned to some state of normal by that time.

The eligibility guidance for spending CARES Act student emergency funds was also confusing, Schwartz said. The guidance said only students who are eligible for Title IV, or federal student aid, funding could receive the grants. Many student veterans are eligible for that aid, she said, but they don't fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid required to receive it because the GI Bill often covers their costs.

"The nuances of funding and the circumstances of veterans is not always considered," she said. ​

Ang hopes that, in any new packages for COVID-19 relief, student veterans are part of the conversation.

​"We want to make sure that as Congress is looking to push this forward, that they make sure the guidance incorporates aid for veterans and service members," she said.

Institutions also need to take steps to help these students, Schwartz said. Enrollment continues to be an issue in many places, and broadening the pipeline to better recruit and serve student veterans could help, she said.

"The GI Bill is a generous source of funding," she said. "Student veterans are a way that institutions can diversify their student populations with relatively less of a financial impact."

The first step, as explained in the initiative's report, is to make the case for recruiting student veterans. Colleges need to understand the data on student veterans and educate the rest of the campus community. Then they need to define their commitments and communicate their supports clearly to student veterans, Schwartz said.

Not only do student veterans help diversify campuses and come with strong federal aid packages, but they also tend to do well academically and have strong outcomes after graduation, according to Schwartz's report. The average grade point average for all student veterans is 3.34, compared to 2.94 for nonveteran students. The unemployment rate for veterans is lower than that of the average population, and the median earnings for veterans with degrees are higher than those of nonveterans with degrees, the report states.

The School of General Studies at Columbia University has long been making efforts to recruit and retain student veterans, said Curtis Rodgers, vice dean and senior administrative officer at the school. The school enrolls more than 500 student veterans, a number that has been steadily increasing over the years.

Columbia focuses on access and building community, Rodgers said.

"If students don’t feel like they're part of a community, they’re not going to enroll," he said. "We’ve been able to create that environment. We’re confident that the student veterans we enroll will speak about our community in a positive way."

Both access and community building have changed due to the pandemic. In the past, the university would send recruiters to community colleges near military bases, Rodgers said. Now it's hosting virtual events. Recently, the university hosted a virtual transfer fair specifically for student veterans. More than 100 colleges joined the fair to talk with them. There were about 700 virtual visits among all the colleges, he said.

Building community in a virtual era is harder. Students have started new support groups, and the university is hosting virtual workshops on different issues, Rodgers said. But it's difficult to replace the experience of staff making connections by bumping into students on campus or coming across students in distress.

Texas A&M University has also been hosting virtual events for its 1,250 current and former military students, said Jerry Smith, director of the Veteran Resource and Support Center at the university and a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel. Most of the student veterans on his campus are older, and many are married with kids. The isolation is making it difficult to help them transition to college.

"They always do their best when they can connect with other veterans who can help with the transition," he said.

Texas A&M has been flexible, hosting events online and connecting smaller cohorts remotely, Smith said. This has worked better for some student veterans who have other priorities, and a hybrid mix of virtual and in-person activities will likely continue after the pandemic is over.

But engagement and participation is still Smith's No. 1 concern -- even above mental health. The university has hosted virtual career fairs and switched many services, like tutoring, to a remote setting. While all that is helpful, it can't truly replace face-to-face interaction.

​"My concern is there’s going to be a lot of missed opportunities that could impact them for a lifetime," he said.​

Attendance at the virtual career fairs has been mixed but not awful, and participation at virtual veteran camp that serves as an orientation and welcome event at the start of the semester went up by about 20 percentage points. But attendance is not the metric Smith cares about.

"The quality of the interaction virtually is less," he said. "The metric is not the attendance, but the number who are attending and getting a quality interaction."

That said, Smith believes that student veterans are resilient and, if given the proper resources, they will rise to the challenges of the pandemic.

Ang is particularly concerned about student veterans' mental health. Will there be fewer referrals from professors now that they're teaching through screens? How will this increased isolation affect veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?

While colleges have been reaching out to students directly, sometimes calling each student on their list, that still may not catch those who need help, Ang said. When people are struggling mentally, "answering the phone is not going to be a priority," she said.

Student veterans are also facing many of the same financial and resource-related issues as nontraditional students. They are more likely than a traditional student to have children, and thus need to balance caring for their kids at home and their own schoolwork. They may have lost jobs and thus are dealing with food or housing insecurity.

But these students also tend to be resilient due to their military experience.

"Student veterans as a whole do very well in higher education," Ang said. "They're resilient, focused -- they want to finish."

At Columbia, Rodgers hasn't seen declines in student veteran enrollment. Rather, students in the School of General Studies have been increasing their course loads.

Rodgers attributes this to the lack of other options for students. They may not be able to work or complete an internship right now, and online courses may be more flexible for students.

He's also seeing higher participation rates in student activities and events.

"When you're not bound by geography, you lower the barrier to participation," he said.

Texas A&M won't have official data until February, but anecdotally, at least half of the system's campuses believe their student veteran enrollment has increased, Smith said. He believes the official enrollment numbers will just hold steady, as students may leave college due to their competing priorities.

Statistics show the potential for enrollment growth, though. By 2021, it's estimated that there will be 5.1 million post-Sept. 11 veterans. About 68 percent won't have a bachelor's degree, Smith said. For those veterans, it may seem like a good time to enroll.

"But it is 2020, and it’s hard to make a bet about anything," he said.

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