Recruit & Retain (Student Veterans)

Serving the One Percent

Improving the higher education experience for student veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), since 2009 the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program have educated nearly 1,000,000 student veterans, with an estimated $30 billion of funds issued. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has gifted this generation of veterans with an enormous educational investment. Every veteran deserves the opportunity to be educated by the best academic institutions this country has to offer. More than that, though, every veteran deserves the tools by which to make that a reality.

For more than a decade, veteran advocates have worked to improve the quality of services available to veterans after they’ve come home. Now there are a greater number of best-in-class services and programming available to veterans and their families. But, unfortunately, few academic institutions are adequately prepared to receive student veterans.

For colleges, a model worth emulating comes from the several successful public-private partnerships that exist in other areas of veteran services. Successful partners can be found with organizations such as The Pat Tillman Foundation Fund’s Tillman Military Scholars program, which provides veterans and their family members with additional scholarships. On the private side, Veritas Prep has provided free or reduced-cost SAT and GMAT prep services for vets. A small academic skills program, the Warrior-Scholar Project, has found its niche at Yale University, and they help to facilitate veterans’ transition from the military to college by providing substantive skills and an improved sense of identity as a student veteran. All of these programs are scalable, easily adoptable and offer focused programming for student veterans.

Considerations for Recruitment

Problems have begun to arise in the recruitment of student veterans, especially as inexperienced college administrators, government officials and nonprofit professionals have naively approached veterans as if there is a “one-size-fits-all” solution: as though a student veteran in Manhattan would have the same needs as a student veteran in Milwaukee. In these cases, oftentimes, institutions fail to consider significant factors such as differences in culture, gender, race, class, geography and even personal tastes within the student veteran population. These failures have led to rampant stereotypes about a veteran’s personality, misconceptions about mental health, and misinformation about what it means to have served in a war.

Schools need to adopt a mindset that considers the various nuances that exist within the veteran population. If they fail to do so, it is no exaggeration to say that not only will they continue to strain an already overwhelmed system, but they also risk failing to meet the needs of the very population they claim to be serving.

The higher education system is often the first step of many in a vet’s journey of assimilation. As such, colleges and universities need to adopt better institutional policies and understandings of the mental health challenges present in the student vet population. A few exceptional nonprofits — Give an Hour and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), just to name two — have made veteran mental health care a top priority.

In large part, much of veteran recruitment for higher education begins with basic outreach and then moves into mental health counseling protocols, which dovetails nicely with other retention strategies. Whether colleges hire staff members skilled at serving veterans or partner with another local provider, these options serve as a stopgap between the veterans and the VA, thereby transferring the responsibility of caring for our nation’s veterans off the shoulders of the government and placing a share of it on private businesses.

Acknowledging the Changes

Over the last 10 years, the military has seen sweeping changes that have systematically changed the cultural fabric of the armed services: 10 years of war, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” women in combat and increasing public awareness of military sexual trauma. Because these changes have affected certain demographics differently than others — for instance, women and the LGBT community — it’s smart policy to treat every veteran with the same level of respect and care no matter his or her branch, dates of service or military job.

Once colleges begin to place student veterans as their top priority, we’ll see veterans begin to assimilate more quickly into the college culture. Only after colleges adopt institutional priorities aimed at creating dynamic, veteran-centered programming will the overwhelming differences begin to seem less obvious between the less than one percent who have fought in these wars and the 99 percent who did not.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management August 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Brandon Willitts is co-founder and executive director of Words After War, a literary nonprofit that provides veterans and their families with opportunities for writing workshops, literary mentorships and studio retreats. He also assists his alma mater, Vermont’s Marlboro College, in the recruitment of veteran students.