Four Steps for Overcoming Barriers to Student Veteran Success

by Katie Sloan

Putting an understanding of student veterans’ unique challenges into action is critical to their education.

Maria MontalvoWith the military drawdown from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the overall reduction in the U.S. active-duty force due to sequestration, more than 1 million veterans will be returning to civilian life over the next five years.

Thanks to a variety of public and private efforts, including the pledge of major U.S. corporations to hire veterans, veteran unemployment rates, which had been in the double digits, are currently hovering around 7.4 percent and are statistically on par with the 7.2 percent unemployment rate of non-veterans.

The picture is not quite as positive, however, for our youngest veterans, who like the rest of their demographic, continue to struggle with higher-than-average unemployment rates in the wake of the country’s multi-year recession. Military training and experience can be difficult to transfer to the civilian workforce, making it particularly difficult for young veterans to compete for limited work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment at one point continued to hover at 18.5 percent for veterans aged 18 to 24, compared to 15.2 percent for non-veterans of the same age.

As a result, due to lack of income and other factors, more than 62,619 veterans are homeless on any given night according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, and with the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, veteran’s advocacy groups are reporting an increase in hunger and homelessness for young veterans.

With veteran students taking college classes in record numbers, America’s institutions of higher education have a critical role to play in retraining veterans and better preparing them for civilian life. However, only 10 percent of veteran students complete their undergraduate studies, which introduces the need to highlight the unique set of challenges they face on their journey from service member to college graduate.

Veteran Students Face a Unique Set of Challenges


According to the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), for instance, veteran students are more likely to be disabled than civilian students, with one in five combat veterans having some type of disability compared to only one in 10 of non-veterans. In fact, at the end of 2012, more than 50,000 service members had been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, including 1,500 amputees.

While most schools are already required to be handicap accessible, they are less prepared to deal with the “invisible wounds of war” often faced by veteran students, including traumatic brain injuries and depression. In 2012, the U.S. Army Surgeon General reported that more than 250,000 service members had suffered traumatic brain injuries and more than 75,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder were reported by the Army alone. That same year, military officials also acknowledged that veteran suicides had reached an all-time high of 18 deaths a day.

Struggling with physical, emotional and mental wounds, thousands of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are also coming home to joblessness or underemployment, which makes going to school for retraining simply out of reach for many. Challenges in understanding complex government education benefits, translating military experience into credits, and accessing appropriate support resources are other contributing factors. There are key steps that colleges and universities can take to better support veterans throughout their college experience.

Four Steps Colleges & Universities Can Take to Help Veteran Students Succeed


Step One: Get to know the GI Bills.

One of the first steps that schools can take to help support service members is to help them understand their government-funded educational benefits. Many people don’t know that there are actually three different types of GI Bills: the Active Duty, Selected Reserve and Post-9/11 bills, each of which has different eligibility requirements and benefit levels.

In addition to the GI Bills, schools can also partner directly with the VA to offer reduced tuition rates for veteran students under the Yellow Ribbon Program. According to the VA, more than 800,000 veterans use government education funding every year. Schools are better able to keep qualified students enrolled when the GI Bill and other benefits are understood and utilized to their full potential, so make sure your college or university advisors understand the intricacies of government education benefits.

Step Two: Offer Military 101

College campuses have very different cultures than military installations. While typical college students are graded and assessed on individual performance, the military promotes a team-based culture, where individuals act as part of a group working toward a common goal.

Furthermore, because military culture is based on seniority and rank, professors can be helped to understand that former military personnel can be very formal, direct and to the point, a stark contrast to more informal and conversational civilian communication styles.

Student advisors can also familiarize themselves with the military. Understanding military transcripts (summary of military career posts) will make it easier for advisors to translate qualified military experience into college credit, identify skills and experience that can be transferred to civilian life and better position advisors to guide veteran students in their educational decisions.

Helping professors and other campus support staff understand the many differences between military and civilian culture can dramatically increase student success.

Step Three: Design support programs specifically geared for veteran students.

Colleges and universities can help ease acclimation to civilian and student life by offering support programs such as counseling, peer mentoring and disability services that have been specifically designed to address the unique challenges veterans face.

Campuses can identify welcoming and accessible space to offer veteran services, organizing a veteran student team to coordinate services, oversee case management and manage mentoring programs further increases program success.

Partnering directly with veteran and veteran support groups, such as the VA, the Department of Education’s Veterans Upward Bound Program, which supports veterans in meeting academic responsibilities, or the Student Veterans of America (SVA), a non-profit coalition of student veterans groups, can help also facilitate the transition by providing peer-to-peer networks for veteran students.

Step Four: Create emergency funds and scholarships.

According to the Department of Education, only 10 percent of veteran students complete their undergraduate studies, compared to 31 percent of non-veterans. Many factors contribute to the high dropout rate, but ongoing financial pressure is one of the big ones. Many people do not realize that GI benefits do not cover the full cost of veterans’ college education and living expenses. Offering emergency funds, financial counsel and scholarships when government funding is either not available or not enough to cover educational expense goes a long way toward helping veteran students stay in school.

By incorporating one or more of the steps outlined, schools can help ensure that America’s veterans are better positioned to sidestep unemployment, hunger and homeless by getting a college education. By providing veterans with new skills and appropriate support throughout their civilian transition, colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to help ensure that more of our nation’s veterans will be able to successfully transition to life after the military and enjoy the fruits of the society they sacrificed so much to preserve.

Our Family for Families First Foundation provides grants and scholarships to children and spouses of active-duty service members. Corvias Military Living, a company within the Corvias Group family of companies, has been building and operating military housing since 1998. The firm expanded its scope to student housing in 2012.

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