After more than a decade of war, tens of thousands of veterans are now returning home.
These men and women are some of America’s finest: mature, highly trained, disciplined, motivated, fluent in international affairs, skilled in teamwork, and imbued with a strong ethic of service. Moreover, they have defended our nation ably and deserve to have their service recognized— and their reintegration into civilian life facilitated by everyone in a position to help.
With the 2008 passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill—the largest investment in veterans’ education since World War II—many colleges and universities quickly embraced the prospect of welcoming veterans to their campuses. Veterans also responded enthusiastically. More than half a million former service members have applied for certificates of eligibility under the law. Five years after the bill’s passage, many institutions have discovered that helping service members navigate the terrain from active duty to college and on to civilian employment brings both more benefits and more challenges than initially anticipated.
The George Washington University (GW), in Washington, DC, is a case in point. GW has seen a 300 percent increase in the enrollment of student veterans since the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which includes the Yellow Ribbon Program—an initiative that allows colleges and universities to cover veterans’ tuition and fee costs not included in the legislation. This year, total veteran enrollment at GW has reached almost 1,000: Roughly two-thirds of those veterans are in graduate and professional programs, and one-third are in undergraduate programs. The growing presence of student veterans has become a vital part of our student body, and more are on the way.
This dramatic growth is partly a result of GW stepping up, along with many other institutions, to match federal aid. Other factors include our commitment to educating admissions officers about the bureaucratic obstacles veterans often face, and our creation of an office that helps veterans navigate the application process.
We have discovered, however, that such steps are not always sufficient. Applicants often need assistance the most while they are still on active duty overseas, trying to translate military language that describes their skills into civilian terms; deciphering the eligibility requirements both of the federal government and of their preferred institution; or calculating how their military training might translate into credit hours.
And then there are the challenges veterans face when they arrive on campus. They are generally a few years older than other students and are more likely to have family responsibilities, or are reliant on multiple sources of financing. Some have service-related disabilities, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss, or vision loss (although it is important not to exaggerate the incidence of such problems or to stigmatize those affected by them).
Each of these factors can produce distractions and time constraints that can diminish or derail veterans’ academic success. To address these transitional challenges, GW created a special orientation program. We also partnered with the nonprofit Veterans Writing Project to offer courses that, among other benefits, enable student veterans to work through their sometimes-stressful memories by converting them into narratives they control. We even set up a system of short-term loans for veterans when we discovered a lag time between the arrival of federal benefits and the deadline for bills to be paid.
But we know we have much to learn from other institutions. For instance, I moderated a panel on this subject in March at the American Council on Education’s Annual Meeting, where we were introduced to George Mason University’s (VA) innovative module-based approach to training faculty members on how best to engage with student veterans.
Each investment in such efforts yields benefits many times over. Student veterans bring valuable perspectives and questions to the classroom; they also set a powerful example of leadership and service. At my institution, they set up their own organization, GW Vets, which organizes community service activities and advocates on behalf of veterans’ issues locally and nationally. As part of our Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, we now have a Veteran Service Initiative, which connects veterans to service opportunities on and off campus.
Indeed, so strong is the commitment of our student veterans to public service that we have taken their cue and created a Center for Second Service in our Graduate School of Political Management. The center focuses on building practical skills for careers in electoral politics as well as in civil service.
Each day, we continue to learn from our student veterans. They have a proven capacity to lead, improvise, and advocate for change when an institution is not operating as well as it might. Those are the attributes that made them such a formidable force on behalf of our nation. Consequently, one of the most effective steps we have taken has been to set up a student veterans’ advisory committee to provide a regular forum for listening to what they have to teach us.
This dialogue has been immensely helpful, and has already informed the planning for our second generation of initiatives geared toward student veterans. Next fall, we will be rolling out an array of new degree and certificate programs designed for veterans and active-duty personnel. Some of these will involve hybrid forms of instruction, combining face-to-face learning with online learning, both domestically and abroad, and we will be seeking to provide these students with the most efficient pathways through the curriculum. A battle-tested medic should not have to spend months or even years frustrated by red tape in order to be certified as a nurse. Our aim should be to engage our military personnel—wherever they are located—as soon as they begin thinking about higher education, help them overcome any obstacles to matriculation, and provide them with a clear path toward a potential career.
No college or university has perfected a system for helping our veterans. Even now, five years after passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the nation’s higher education system as a whole remains hampered by gaps in basic data about the retention, graduation, and job-placement rates of student veterans. Nevertheless, we have both an obligation and an opportunity in the years ahead to achieve even greater success by doing what our veterans have done on our behalf for years: listen, improvise, persevere, and lead.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, military veterans experience higher levels of unemployment than nonveterans who have the same level of educational attainment.
Steven Knapp is president of The George Washington University, which has been named a “Military Friendly School” by G.I. Jobs magazine for four consecutive years and ranked as one of the “Best for Vets” institutions by the Military Times.