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March-April 2014

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Helping Student Servicemembers and Veterans Succeed

In Short

  • Some promising practices have emerged for addressing the special needs of and enhancing outcomes for students who are veterans or active-duty military.

  • Like other adult students, they are often quite a few years removed from formal education; need to juggle school, life and work demands; may not be familiar with academic institutions; and have serious financial concerns.

  • More than most students, they face challenges related to geographic mobility and other disruptions of their academic pursuits.

  • Such students are capable of and prepared in many ways for success, as long as colleges proactively offer them the requisite support.

When Vietnam veteran Larry Johnson lost his job in 2006, he realized he wouldn't be able to find another one without a bachelor's degree. Johnson, disabled after being injured by a mortar in Vietnam, took advantage of the opportunity afforded him by the Post-9/11 GI Bill to obtain his degree—over 40 years after he graduated from high school.

After earning an associate's degree and trying a few other undergraduate institutions, Johnson chose Brandman University, which has several campuses on military bases and offers specialized resources to ease military-background students' transition to college and to help them complete their degrees. These resources include the Veterans2College program, which provides transition courses for military-background students and personalized success coaching, provided through a partnership with InsideTrack, a national student-success organization.

Johnson leveraged these services to get up to speed on classroom technology and to keep up with the pace of his coursework. In 2012, he graduated with a BA in organizational development and found a job working with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as an occupational counselor.

Johnson's is just one of the many success stories of student servicemembers and veterans enrolling in college and completing a degree. Hundreds of thousands of current and former servicemembers enter college each year, and their ranks are expected to swell as several major US military engagements overseas wind down.

The questions on many people's minds are first, what is the overall success rate for student servicemembers and veterans attending US colleges and universities, and second, what can be done to improve their chances for success?

The answer to the first questions is that no one knows, but a number of organizations are working to find out. The answer to the second is that there are a number of promising practices, most of which address the servicemember-to-student transition.

THE $11 BILLION QUESTION

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has made billions of dollars in education benefits available to veterans, servicemembers, and their families to complete their postsecondary education. It provides up to full tuition, a monthly housing stipend, and money for books and supplies.

According to a May 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the VA provided nearly $10 billion in education benefits to almost one million veterans and beneficiaries in 2011, the bulk of that under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Additionally, the US Department of Defense (DOD) reported that 325,000 active-duty servicemembers enrolled in postsecondary courses in 2011, using more than $1 billion in funding made available through the DOD Voluntary Education Program.

So, was the $11 billion spent to send 1.3 million beneficiaries to college worth it? That is open to debate. In July 2012, NBCnews.com and the Huffington Post published a controversial article stating that 88 percent of veterans drop out of college within the first year, and only 3 percent graduate.

The article cited data from a workforce-development council report in Colorado that has been widely criticized and is no longer available online. Unfortunately, the statistics have lived on and have shaped many individuals' perceptions about student servicemembers' and veterans' success.

One of the organizations trying to revise those perceptions is Student Veterans of America (SVA), a grass-roots student organization dedicated to providing military veterans with the resources, support, and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education. In January 2013, SVA announced a partnership with the VA and the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a research center that tracks students through the postsecondary system.

Their goal is to create an education-completion database for Post-9/11 and Montgomery GI Bill beneficiaries. Under the agreement, the VA will provide the NSC with information on up to one million beneficiaries. The NSC will then match the beneficiaries against their database to determine how many veterans have graduated or completed a training program.

Also, in November 2013, Google awarded a $3.2 million grant to SVA, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, Posse Foundation, and Veterans of Foreign Wars to support data analysis of US veterans' higher education.

Meanwhile, SVA is using other data to combat the perception that current and former servicemembers fare poorly in higher education. For example, according to data compiled from the 2010 National Survey of Veterans, over 66 percent of those who used VA education benefits completed a degree, certificate, or training program, and 73 percent of those veterans cited the benefits as important in meeting their educational goals or preparing them to get a better job.

While we wait for better national statistics, much of the activity in measuring and enhancing the success of student servicemembers and veterans is taking place at the institutional level.

GETTING THE INSTITUTIONAL HOUSE IN ORDER

Institutions across the country are experiencing an influx of veterans and servicemembers, and some are better prepared for them than others. According to a recent survey conducted by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in High Education and InsideTrack, nearly three-quarters of colleges and universities have dedicated personnel and resources specifically to service member and veteran student affairs, but the vast majority do not have the disaggregated retention and completion data required to measure the effectiveness of these interventions and investments.

In addition, only a quarter of institutions say they have a deep understanding of the causes of stopout or dropout among their military-background student populations. Clearly, most institutions would benefit from some basic data gathering and procedural discussions before ramping up spending on programs for student servicemembers and veterans.

One of the first steps colleges and universities can take is determining which of their students are current and former servicemembers. It sounds simple enough, but many military students and student veterans are not using VA or DOD funding to pay for school, because they are either unaware of these benefits or have exhausted them. Student intake questionnaires can be used to gather the relevant information.

However, it is important to note that the wording of these surveys can greatly affect the results. Some universities have reported a 10 to 20 percent increase in the numbers of self-identified military-background students simply as a result of re-wording their intake surveys.

Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is one institution that saw a dramatic change in results from a minor change in wording. “On your enrollment application, don't just ask if they are a veteran; rather, ask if the individual has ever been affiliated with the US military and in what capacity (active duty, veteran, reserve/National Guard, spouse, or dependent),” says Lauren Williams, director of the Office of Military & Veteran Services. The University of Nebraska is also testing phraseology to improve its ability to identify, track, and engage student servicemembers and veterans.

In addition to identifying students with a military background, it is worthwhile to identify administrators, faculty, staff and alumni who share this experience. They can provide an invaluable, holistic perspective on how effectively an institution serves these students. A good next step is to review the available literature on best practices and available resources for supporting current and former members of the military (see text box).

Of course, it's important to remember that students are individuals and rarely fit into a single demographic or behavioral category. Just because a student has an affiliation with the military does not mean that he or she will benefit from programs designed to support current and former servicemembers. Military-service history is only one of many variables to consider when tailoring support programs to individual students.

As David Vacchi, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel and doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, notes,

Student veterans are a subpopulation that is more diverse than the greater undergraduate population and may require varied levels of support to be successful in college. While some veterans may need more support than others, once a veteran feels validated in a class, degree program, college context, or as a member of a community, the natural talents of any veteran will sustain them through to degree completion.

COMMON OBSTACLES

While every student is unique, there are some general characteristics to understand when trying to increase the enrollment and success of student servicemembers and veterans. As with all post-traditional (non-first-time, non-full-time) students, current and former servicemembers face challenges associated with returning to school after time away from formal education—in most cases, for quite a few years. Returning to the college environment, or experiencing it for the first time, can be overwhelming, particularly for individuals who have grown accustomed to living within hierarchical structures and find themselves suddenly immersed in the open and fluid environment of higher education.

Another common obstacle for military-background students, like for most adults, is balancing work, family, and academic commitments. Military service generally assists individuals in developing the skills and, more importantly, the confidence to plan for success, overcome challenges, and follow through on commitments—traits critical to college completion. However, many of these students discover that they need help in translating these abilities and applying them when adding school to an already busy life.

Current and former servicemembers also face challenges that confront many first-generation students, such as not knowing where to turn to for help, what questions to ask, or how to advocate for themselves within an unfamiliar and complex system. They often require support in learning the language of higher education, just as they needed training to understand the military's alphabet soup of acronyms and jargon.

Mismatches in expectations, both on the student's and the institution's side, are also common. The behavioral norms of the military and most college campuses differ greatly. Moreover, civilian students, faculty, and administrators have little understanding of the depth and breadth of military training and experience. As a result, they may underestimate the leadership potential of student servicemembers and veterans or overestimate the prevalence of certain conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There are many military-background students who go through an initial stage of questioning whether or not they are college material. This is particularly true for those who entered the military because, at the time, they didn't feel they were cut out to be in college. The vast majority of these students are perfectly capable of completing their degrees, but without early, proactive support, they may not give themselves the chance to do so.

Finances are another common obstacle, particularly for student veterans. While robust funding exists to support them in their pursuit of higher education, the systems for accessing it are often cumbersome. Active-duty students generally find the process of securing tuition assistance through the DOD Voluntary Education Program straightforward, but many former servicemembers have difficulty navigating the more complex process of securing benefits and timely payments through the GI Bill.

In May 2013, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and SVA launched a new initiative to help student veterans through this process. Those experiencing difficulty accessing GI Bill information can email 1studentveteran@vfw.org for assistance. The VA's GI Bill website (http://www.gibill.va.gov) also offers resources to assist former servicemembers and dependents in securing educational benefits.

Finally, more than most students, active-duty servicemembers and veterans face challenges related to geographic mobility and other disruptions of their academic pursuits. Relocations, deployments, and reserve or temporary-duty assignments often require them to take time off or reconfigure their approach to education. This is one of the many reasons that current and former servicemembers disproportionally pursue degrees through online programs, which can exacerbate some issues associated with transitioning to a less-structured environment.

A number of institutions have put in place initiatives to address these and other issues related to student servicemember and veteran success. Below, we examine a few of the more promising programs.

BRIGHT SPOTS

Studies have shown that proactive support is critical to helping students transition into higher education and be successful there. This support may take the form of programs dedicated to specific student populations or more broadly focused ones that support all students in getting off to a strong start.

The Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran (SERV) program developed at Cleveland State University, prospective student coaching at Penn State's World Campus, and success coaching at Brandman University are examples of programs that support servicemembers and veterans at different stages of their higher education decision-making and integration process.

The SERV program was developed in 2006 by a concerned Cleveland State instructor and several veterans, with backing from the university and the VA. The goal of the program is to increase the number of veterans returning to school by proactively engaging active-duty servicemembers in conversations about the need for higher education.

SERV has also developed a three-course curriculum focused on resiliency, leadership, and empathy, and it trains student veterans to teach others as a means of becoming more effective learners themselves. The curriculum is now in use at more than 350 colleges and universities, including the University of Arizona, Bowie State University, Jackson State University and North Carolina Central University.

Penn State University has been serving military students for more than 150 years. As of 2012, servicemembers and veterans comprised 15 percent of the total enrollment in its online World Campus, which provides one-on-one coaching to guide all prospective students through the admissions process, to help them select the right program, and to support them in developing a plan for achieving their goals.

The coaching is personalized to each student's needs, including tailored offerings to assist military-background students in securing benefits and connecting to dedicated campus resources and peer groups. Many of the admissions, advising, and coaching staff members at World Campus are veterans themselves, and the university provides specialized training for those without prior military experience.

Brandman University was born in 1958 when Chapman University, one of California's oldest private nonprofit institutions, opened a campus at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to serve the needs of military students. Today, Brandman is a separate, regionally accredited university that provides success coaching to all newly enrolled students.

As Larry Johnson's story makes clear, this type of proactive support can be invaluable. “I had severed a nerve in my right leg, and it was a little hard to deal with both my recovery and school,” says Johnson. “My coach connected me to resources and strategies I wouldn't have come up with on my own.”

Saskia Knight, vice chancellor of enrollment and student affairs at Brandman University, highlights the importance of tailoring coaching to the military-student population. “Servicemembers have their own set of unique challenges, so we use coaches who are particularly skilled at keeping them engaged and motivated—helping them leverage university resources and plan in advance for deployments or off-base exercises.”

In addition to putting programs in place to better support servicemembers and veterans transitioning into higher education, a number of institutions and other organizations are working to better understand these students' decision-making behavior and the factors that influence their success.

INSIDE THE MINDS OF STUDENT SERVICEMEMBERS AND VETERANS

Most of the information available on the preferences and tendencies of student veterans and active-duty military students comes from surveys and anecdotal accounts. However, some organizations have begun working to better understand how prospective and enrolled students' attitudes and behaviors differ depending on their military-service history.

InsideTrack helps colleges and universities across the country with this work by analyzing information collected during structured, one-on-one coaching sessions. Results from a recent multi-institution analysis indicate some differences in key areas between students with a military background and the general post-traditional student population.

Some of the findings are not that surprising—for instance, that prospective students with a military background are more likely to be pursuing a degree as a way to change careers rather than to advance in their current careers. However, other findings do raise important issues for institutions that want to increase the enrollment and success of military-background students.

For example, prospective students with a military background are much more likely to start college once they begin the inquiry process. If they don't attend a particular institution, they are more likely to have gone to a competitor than to not have started at all. This is the opposite of prospective post-traditional students without a military background.

Also, the convenience of attending a program—the ability to attend part-time, do the degree online, and/or stop out and resume as necessary—matters far more to a prospective student with a military background than does the academic reputation of the institution. Again, this is the opposite for prospective post-traditional students overall.

Even those military-background prospects who are looking at highly selective programs expect flexibility in how they pursue their degrees. Other findings from the research include a lower propensity of student servicemembers and veterans to drop out due to academic performance or issues associated with following through on their commitments.

COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS

Interviews with InsideTrack coaches, institution staff, and others involved in the work described above also contradict some other widely held beliefs regarding the behaviors and attitudes of student servicemembers and veterans. Below are just a few of the prevalent misconceptions.

Again, it is important to remember that each student is unique and that no group of students shares every attribute. But based on our conversations with support professionals serving these students, these misconceptions often shape institutional attitudes toward current and former servicemembers.

Myth #1: Servicemembers and veterans have lower success rates than other student populations. As discussed earlier, there is insufficient information regarding the enrollment and completion rates of military-background students to come to conclusions about their success or lack of it. The difficulty that colleges and universities have in tracking students who transfer from one institution to another or stop out is exacerbated in a population with high geographic mobility and irregular enrollment patterns.

Myth #2: Servicemembers and veterans are less well prepared to succeed in college. Professionals who work directly with students to support their success indicate that active-duty military students and student veterans are often among the best-prepared students. The challenge is in helping them adapt the skills and attitudes they've developed through their military service for use in an academic context.

Most of these students know how to establish a goal, define the steps necessary to achieve it, balance competing priorities, and hold themselves accountable for execution. They simply need guidance on how to use these skills to earn a degree and prepare themselves for success beyond college.

Myth #3: Servicemembers and veterans are resistant to support. It's true that military service promotes self-reliance. However, it also encourages teamwork and mutual trust. Experts suggest that the key to engagement with these students is to position support services as part of a team effort to help all students achieve success, not as a remedial effort for individuals expected to fail.

These experts point out that this is not just true for learners with military experience but for students in general. Student servicemembers and veterans are just as likely to use support services as other students when doing so doesn't carry a negative stigma and is presented in a timely fashion with clearly articulated expectations.

Myth #4: Servicemembers and veterans are proactive and direct in expressing dissatisfaction with their educational experience. Most servicemembers and veterans have experienced a variety of situations where they were expected to fulfill their duties without complaint, irrespective of unpleasant conditions or extremely challenging circumstances. As a result, they are sometimes hesitant to advocate for themselves or question authority.

Some of the support professionals we spoke with drew a parallel between military-background learners and international students. These experts suggest that student servicemembers and veterans often need guidance on when it's appropriate to express their concerns and how to raise those concerns in a constructive manner designed to meet their educational goals.

NEXT STEPS

A great deal of attention is being paid to enhancing the experiences and educational outcomes of student veterans and active-duty military students. Unfortunately, the data available to support these important activities, both at the institutional and national level, remains limited.

Making real progress will require not only an effective system for collecting and analyzing data across institutions—such as that being developed by the NSC, the VA, and SVA—but also better systems at the institutional level to identify students with military experience, track their success in a disaggregated fashion, assess their potential obstacles, and measure the effectiveness of various interventions.

This data can drive institutional behavior in ways that should enhance the success of military-background students, but to do so will require coordination across functional boundaries. Improving the educational success of current and former servicemembers cannot be accomplished through specialized departments alone. Registrars, financial-aid officers, orientation directors, institutional researchers, faculty, advisors and others all play a role in helping these students succeed. The student experience must be coordinated across institutional boundaries, with particular attention paid to sharing data and integrating it into programmatic offerings.

Institutions should also provide proactive support. Too often, student services react to problems rather than assisting students in developing the habits required for success. By assisting students in creating a plan to achieve their goals, guiding them in assessing likely obstacles, and encouraging them to take ownership of and hold themselves accountable for their learning, institutions can redefine the notion of supporting student success.

As Sarah Paterson, a University of Maryland University College graduate and veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq said in her commencement address, “Success is not static; it changes and evolves with time. And we must evaluate it constantly, aligning it with our goals and values.”

RESOURCES

The American Council on Education offers an online resource called the Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions (https://vetfriendlytoolkit.acenet.edu), which highlights a variety of best practices, including veterans orientations, on-campus veteran-service centers, prospective student-outreach efforts, faculty training, and counseling and psychological services for student veterans. It also includes video clips, profiles of student-veteran programs across the US, and a searchable database of tools and resources.

Another valuable resource is the Operation College Promise (OCP) Field Guide (http://operationpromiseforservicemembers.com/OCP-FieldGuide-April2013.pdf), which provides a blueprint for creating an environment in which students with military backgrounds can succeed. Beyond the Field Guide, the OCP website also offers a variety of training and networking opportunities, as well as access to their report series entitled Completing the Mission: A Study of Veteran Students' Progress Toward Degree Attainment in the Post-9/11 Era, published in conjunction with the Pat Tillman Foundation.

The 8 Keys to Success program developed by the Obama Administration, the Department of Education (ED), and the VA (with the help of more than 100 education experts) identifies eight steps that colleges and universities can take to help veterans and servicemembers transition into the classroom and thrive there.

Other useful sources of information include SVA (http://www.studentveterans.org) and the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC). The latter functions in cooperation with 15 higher education associations, the Department of Defense, and active and reserve components of the military services to expand and improve postsecondary education opportunities for servicemembers worldwide (http://www.soc.aascu.org).

InsideTrack has also published several documents related to student veteran and servicemember success, including an e-book, Quick Tips for Supporting Military Students and Student Veterans; another entitled The Decision-Making Behavior of Post-Traditional Students; and a report called Measuring the Success of Student Veterans and Active-Duty Military Students. All are available on the organization's website (http://www.insidetrack.com/).

Ron Callahan (ron.callahan@insidetrack.com) is a program development associate at InsideTrack, where he assists institutions in developing their coaching programs. Previously, he spent three years as a success coach for the organization, working primarily with active-duty military students and student veterans. He began his career working in student affairs at the University of Delaware, University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Northwestern University.

Dave Jarrat (dave.jarrat@insidetrack.com; also on Twitter djarrat), a member of the leadership team at InsideTrack, directs marketing, research, and industry relations there. He has authored numerous papers on student success, including A Strategic Approach to Student Success: Five Ways to Enhance Outcomes and Reduce Costs (Harvard Education Press, 2013). His work has also appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.       

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