Access to higher education benefits is one of the most prominent reasons many young people enlist in the military. As the troops draw down from the Iraq and Afghanistan combat zones, more military members are transitioning to civilian life, and many of them are turning to post-secondary education to start building a new career.
Current and former military members who decide to attend a four-year university face challenges that other students do not. Whether it’s understanding how to take advantage of their earned education benefits, transferring military education credits to their college of choice, or adapting to the new civilian lifestyle, civilians simply don’t encounter the same obstacles. So when veterans make the difficult transition from military member to civilian student, what steps can universities take to better serve this unique demographic?
We spoke to the Student Veterans of America (SVA), a national coalition of more than 850 student veteran groups across the nation, about what military students are looking for when choosing a college, and the obstacles they face when they do. We also spoke to universities about the policies, services, personnel and resources they dedicate to helping current and former military members, which in turn can lead to more enrollments of military students and their family members.
OBSTACLE 1: Understanding military education benefits
There are a number of different military education benefits these students could be taking advantage of, including the Tuition Assistance Program for active duty service members, the Montgomery G.I. Bill or the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. With these numerous options for financial aid come complex requirements that can be difficult to understand, as well as eligibility rules and policies that tend to change without warning. For example, when Congress failed to pass legislation that would stop the sequester, three of the four military branches quickly announced they would slash their tuition assistance programs and then retracted this statement shortly thereafter.
Universities can help meet this need for guidance by having a full-time faculty member dedicated to helping military students with Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) certification and filing the appropriate paperwork to collect GI Bill benefits.
“The military is better about having sessions about it right before they get out, but unfortunately the students are still receiving some wrong information,” Boyd “Buddy” Sherbet, the Veteran Certifying Official at the University of Texas – Dallas, said. “It gets harder and harder. Some people are scared of it – there are a lot of rules and complexity involved.”
Another college that has a full-time certifying official is the University of Missouri campus in Kansas City. UMKC has an estimated 375 to 400 students receiving the G.I. Bill each semester, and the school is trying to find a way to accurately count other military students who use other forms of financial aid, like tuition assistance. UMKC originally had a part-time certifying official, but after finding that the students were not getting the results they needed, the university decided to create a full-time position to focus on military students.
“Their job is to help veterans get their G.I. Bill benefits, making sure they have the necessary paperwork and submitting their enrollment to the VA,” Amy Cole, UMKC Associate Registrar, said. “We can’t control what the VA pays and the timeliness of those payments, but what we can do is make sure the VA has the information they need to process it. We are the conduit of the paperwork, and that is a full-time job.”
In addition to validating enrollment and filing paperwork, this full-time official should understand the laws and timelines associated with military education benefits. Ideally, this staff member should also be well-versed in other financial aid options available to military members and their families, such as financial aid programs, scholarships, grants or low-interest loans.
“I consider myself an information broker,” Sherbet said. “I certify all G.I. Bill participants, and I’m a point of contact for VA benefits for vets who are active duty who want information prior to getting out – sometimes as much as two years in advance. I explain the procedure of applying to the school and activating the G.I. Bill, either by phone, email or in person. I’m the one who actually certifies their benefits to the VA so their tuition can be paid.”
All service members needs to know how these education benefits can be used, the rules that affect them, the assistance they can expect to receive and the costs left over that they will be responsible for.
“I’ve always said it’s about consumer education,” Michael Dakduk, Executive Director of Student Veterans of America, said. “This is something we’ve been working on with the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. We have to make sure we give veterans and their families the resources and education on how to apply for, access and get their benefits."
Universities need to offer guidance counseling to new military students to help translate military terms into college terms and vice versa. For example, it can help to explain best practices for choosing and selecting classes that help students reach their degrees, how to work with the cashier’s office at the school, and how to use a syllabus to keep up with the coursework and exam schedule.
“[Military students] are coming into a system that is not as guided as the military is,” Cole said. “With higher education, you are your own advocate, and you have to find your way through the system. That’s one of the reasons we made the certifying official a full-time position, to help give more of the guidance and direction they need. But there’s still work to be done.”
Another step universities can take is to offer priority registration to veteran students. This service is often provided to student athletes so they can stay compliant with NCAA regulations by remaining enrolled in a degree program. If a student is using the G.I. Bill, he or she must be enrolled in classes that lead to a declared academic major in order to receive the funds.
“If a class fills up and you’re unable to register for it, you may not be able to get your G.I. Bill benefits,” Dakduk said. “If you don’t get that G.I. Bill housing allowance, how are you going to pay rent? How are you going to stay on track for graduation? “
Many four-year universities have caps on class sizes. With small changes to university policies, early priority registration can ensure that student veterans are enrolled and eligible for their benefits on time.
OBSTACLE 2: Transferring military education credits
Many former military-members-turned-students find themselves asking, “Does my extensive military training count toward my degree?” Often, student veterans have also taken classes at other colleges or universities. They often consider the type and amount of credits that transfer when choosing which degree programs they can pursue fastest and most affordably.
Sherbet said he has observed that many military students are often more serious about their college education than their peers, and they are “very centered on what classes will transfer, how long it will take them to achieve their goals, where to live.”
However, transferring credits from the military to their college transcripts may be easier said than done. Not all courses taken in the military are reviewed by the American Council on Education (ACE), so they aren’t always mapped to civilian college credit hours. Also, each branch of the military has a different process for recording military education and experience credits, though the Joint Services Transcript (JST) initiative has helped consolidate this to some degree for the Army, Navy, Marine and Coast Guard branches.
“Every school is different,” Dakduk said. “A private school in New York may accept 10 credits, and a public institute in Alabama may accept 15. It’s an issue, and it’s one I think is important to address, especially given the rising cost of tuition and fees in higher education.”
Because of these inconsistencies, many veterans turn to their academic counselors to guide them. To help support veterans in this area, universities should make it part of the enrollment and on-boarding process to check the student’s military education credits against the degree programs offered, and to help them understand what will transfer and what won’t. Degree counselors must take it upon themselves to learn how military credits translate in their school.
“We rely on academic advisers to give the type of information the military students need,” Sherbet said. “Like UT Dallas has a policy that they can use up to 11 hours of elective credit for many degree programs. Some may appeal to use a skilled area like electrical engineering as prerequisites.”
SVA’s Dakduk, who served in the Marine Corps in 2006 and 2007, also said that a Midwestern consortium of seven states is coming together with higher education institutions to create a framework to help veterans transfer their credits and get credit for their armed forces experience.
OBSTACLE 3: Transitioning from military to civilian life
The next obstacle military students face is the lifestyle change from a structured military environment to a less rigid, more independent civilian lifestyle. Throughout this process, students essentially change their focus from the mission and the military to themselves. Many of these students also spent many of their formative years in the service, and as a result may be significantly older than other students at the college.
“They’re transitioning to an unregulated approach to life,” Dr. Eric Grospitch, UMKC Dean of Students in the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, said. “In the military, these students are told when they’re getting up, when they’re having breakfast, what they’re going to do today, and when they’re done. Compare that to walking into the classroom with a syllabus where a faculty member doesn’t expect an assignment until six weeks later. Finding that balance is probably the biggest transition.”
There are numerous ways universities can step up to help ease the transitions. Some have developed veterans centers or founded veteran-oriented student organizations on campus. Others have made more online and on-campus tutoring resources available. Some universities have created online hubs with information and tools for military students, ranging from disability information, to counseling resources, to the latest changes in education benefit regulations.
The goal is to make sure veterans know who their points of contact are, and that those advocates are doing everything possible to help veterans be successful. Another national program, a New Jersey-based initiative called Operation College Promise, is acting as a hub for policy, research and education information specific to education for service members.
Universities may wish to consider creating job roles that align with the Veterans Affairs Work-Study Program, a federally funded program that allows military students to be employed and earn a paycheck while also staying focused on studies. The students earn federal or state minimum wage to assist veterans’ initiatives, for instance by helping the school’s certifying officials or conducting outreach to support other veterans on campus.
“There is no one-size-fits-all,” Dakduk said. “There will be community colleges that are very resource-restrained, and they will look different than a four-year private institution in Boston. Every school is very different in makeup, size, demographics and the number of veterans on campus.”
Last year, UT Dallas founded a veterans service center on campus where vets and their family members can study and interact with each other. The service center is even starting a unique mentoring program that begins supporting military students the moment they set foot on campus.
“It was largely student-generated,” Sherbet said. “Initially the students wanted one, so they addressed the faculty senate and student government, and they were very proactive. Since then, the regents have strongly encouraged all of the University of Texas system schools to open one. “
Sherbet’s financial aid office is housed within the center, where military members and their families can get help with their benefits. Sherbet, a veteran himself, is uniquely qualified to provide guidance to student-veterans. He was drafted into the Navy, and served 18 months on the flight deck of aircraft carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea from 1968 to 1969. He has been the Veteran Certifying Official for 10 years, and he is retiring in August.
“UT Dallas gave me the opportunity to be the primary person responsible for the VA, and it made all the difference in the world,” Sherbet said. “We have had a very good rapport with the veterans here. I commend UTD for making that commitment to serve our veterans like they should be served.”
At UMKC, the student veterans organization works collaboratively with the university, and a veteran services support team operates within the student affairs department. Student veterans serve on these committees alongside UMKC faculty. The team at UMKC is building some VA Work-Study roles centered on peer-to-peer mentoring, which will connect new military students on campus with current military students, who serve as guides to the environment, procedures and policies of university life. A student organization is also working to develop a program tentatively called Idea Zones, where veterans can find and connect with like-minded individuals who have similar military backgrounds.
Dr. Grospitch said the University of Missouri Partners in Prevention program is planning a survey this fall to further identify veterans’ needs and challenges so the school can prepare and offer corresponding services on campus. UMKC also frequently updates its Student Veterans Virtual Resource Center, where current and prospective students can read about the on-campus organizations and resources available to them.
OBSTACLE 4: Getting veterans paid
The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill offers more funding to veterans than ever before, but when the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill became available in 2009, delays were the biggest complaint from students and colleges alike. When the applications bottlenecked, some students’ payments were so delayed that they were forced to drop their classes and enter the workforce instead.
“In 2009, benefits weren’t getting to vets on time,” Dakduk said. “That has changed. Today, nearly all of claims are processed in an automated manner, and that’s a huge improvement from 2009 when all claims were processed by hand. I don’t receive major complaints on delayed benefits these days.”
Some schools also offer leniency on payment deadlines for students receiving this aid. At UT Dallas, if a student is using the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill for even a portion of their tuition, the school’s cashier’s office does not make the student pay upfront. Instead, the staff waits for VA payments to come in and puts a positive indicator on the students’ accounts so their classes don’t get dropped.
“We start certifying people a month before school starts,” Sherbet said. “It sometimes causes problems when they change classes later, but we would rather have that problem than have them get their money late. There will be delays with the VA if the paperwork is not processed accurately, so that is one of our priority jobs.”
Sherbet and Cole both said that the VA has expanded the lines of communication for schools, and that it actively looks for ways to help colleges. Last year, the VA opened a special phone line exclusively for certifying officials to resolve issues without putting the student in the middle. The VA automation of submitting certifications has “helped tremendously in the turnaround of payments,” according to Cole.
However, the VA still has room for improvement when it comes to communicating policy changes to schools. Much of the communication about policy changes is delivered in conferences, which not all certifying officials can attend, or on one of the DOD or VA websites. Finding an efficient way to send email notifications to alert certifying officials to news and changes would be helpful, Sherbet said.
“The VA does a lot of things really well, but like anyone, there are a lot of areas for improvement,” Cole said. “They have to perform a lot of tasks with a limited staff, and that can cause delays in their system. They are underfunded for the mass undertaking they have to distribute all these benefits. As the population increases that uses their G.I. Bill benefits, they are not getting more staff to compensate for that. But they’ve made huge strides in the last year, and that has really shown with our students.”
Next steps for universities
Universities can have a positive impact on current and prospective student veterans, whether it’s helping them navigate the Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits, supporting them in transferring military education and experience credits, or building resources on campus to help them adjust to the civilian world.
“Just listen to the students,” Dr. Grospitch said. “Do the hours, make the connection with those students, and have them serve on the committees. While we think we know, hearing from the students that are currently experiencing it is critical for us. Help them, give them that voice to be the leaders they’ve been trained to be throughout their military experience, and help them find those paths to their academic success.”
Implementing any or all of the strategies in this article can be a positive step forward for serving veterans and their families on any college campus – and the more, the better. If you build the resources to support them, the veterans will come.