Reaching Veterans

Colleges need a full agenda -- not just federal aid -- to serve this key population of students, writes Steven Knapp.

September 8, 2010

This fall, colleges and universities will welcome an increasing number of veterans to campus, thanks in part to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Among other provisions, the bill created the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides dollar-for-dollar matching funds to private institutions offering tuition scholarships to veterans who have served at least 36 months of active duty since September 10, 2001. To date, the benefits have supported more than 300,000 veterans with more than $2 billion in funding, and some 1,100 colleges and universities have elected to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Why participate? There are many reasons, but here are two that were at the forefront of our thinking at George Washington University when we were in the first wave of institutions to sign up for the Yellow Ribbon Program. First and most obvious, all American institutions have a responsibility to ensure that those who have risked all for the common good have an opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to civilian life at the highest levels they can attain. What may be less fully appreciated is the degree to which veterans carry with them skills and experiences, as well as a level of maturity and a clarity of purpose, that can immeasurably enrich our campuses and the communities around them.

We at George Washington are not alone in counting veterans among our most distinguished alumni. Colleges and universities all stand to benefit from the presence on their campuses of individuals with a proven capacity to lead and inspire others, sometimes in situations of extreme complexity and dire emergency. For that reason, the influx of active-duty veterans made possible by the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides an opportunity unprecedented in recent decades.

But then the question arises: how does a college or university manage that influx – and not just accommodate it, but do so in a way that will bring the greatest benefits to the veterans and the institution alike? At George Washington, we have had to answer those questions in real time. We supported 161 veterans under the Yellow Ribbon Program this past academic year and anticipate supporting more than 230 in 2010-11. In the process, we have discovered that integrating student veterans successfully into college life requires a good deal more than tuition assistance. Here is some of what we have learned, to a large extent by listening carefully to veterans themselves:

First, admissions. A crucial starting point is the recognition that most veterans apply while still on active duty, which means that, among other challenges, they are subject to deployment and other kinds of relocation during the application process and the period between applying and matriculating. The first requirement of a serious approach to recruiting veterans, consequently, is to make sure that a member of the admissions staff, preferably with military experience, is dedicated to this effort and can help these applicants negotiate the challenges as they arise. For example, dedicated admissions staff can translate military jargon, calculate credit hours from military training that can transfer to a student veteran’s degree program, and help complete the application process if a prospective student veteran is stationed abroad.

Nor do the challenges cease with matriculation. Most veterans arrive nowadays with credits from courses they have taken online while still in the services; as a result, many arrive not as freshmen but as sophomores or juniors. But, unlike students who have transferred from other residential colleges or universities, many lack the familiarity with collegiate life that traditional transfer students are expected to have. Even those who enroll as freshmen bring with them a different frame of reference from that of their younger peers, most of whom come straight from high school. Hence the value of a special orientation program that addresses veterans’ particular transitional needs, such as financial guidance and counseling and disability services.

The structure of their benefits under the new GI Bill, generous as those are, further complicates the transition of veterans from military service to college. They frequently have to work through complex eligibility requirements, and, because of a lag between when their bills come due and when they receive their benefits, they may need bridge funding to cover housing and other expenses at the start of their college experience.

Guided, once again, by advice from student veterans themselves, we have developed a number of dedicated resources to meet their needs. Driving our efforts is a campuswide advisory committee, which includes an elected student veteran representative and ensures that administrators across the university are aware of what is happening in the veteran community, that these students’ needs are addressed, and that efforts are not duplicated. We have created the GW Student Veteran Services Office, led by a full-time coordinator who, among other roles, helps student veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder receive the assistance they need to minimize the impact of those conditions on their studies. And we have established a veteran services website that provides benefits checklists, news updates, and lists of relevant resources.

But there is another dimension to the presence of veterans on campus. In addition to their unique skills and life experiences, many veterans bring with them a strong desire to “continue the mission” by engaging in various forms of public service, including outreach to fellow veterans both within and beyond the walls of their college or university. At George Washington, veterans have created their own student organization; GW Vets not only organizes community service activities but engages in advocacy on behalf of veterans both locally and nationally. In fact, it was thanks to the advocacy of GW Vets that we joined the Yellow Ribbon program as strongly and early as we did. This September 11, student veterans will play a key role in our Freshman Day of Service, leading non-veteran students in the renovation of a veterans' retirement home. That is just one example of the many opportunities traditional students will have this academic year to learn from their veteran peers.

One of the best ways, in short, in which an institution can help integrate veterans into campus life is by supporting their aspirations to serve and lead, drawing on them for the best advice on how to do so.


Steven Knapp is president of George Washington University.


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