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Saluting a New Cadre of Students

A wave of military veterans returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan will have access to Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits beginning in August. Is your campus prepared to serve the transitioning troops?

By Al Rickard

*Last summer, the American Council on Education (ACE) held a summit that drew more than 200 college and university presidents, senior military leaders, student veterans, and other campus representatives to examine the barriers veterans face as they transition out of the military and consider their options for higher education.

The summit was intended to be a catalyst for action—action that was urgent and overdue. Many campuses across the country have not focused on the specific needs of veterans, and now more than 2 million service members and veterans who have served in combat since Sept. 11, 2001, are eligible for educational benefits. The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (commonly known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the new GI Bill) that takes effect on August 1 will provide these veterans-and in some cases, their families-with greatly enhanced benefits that will allow many more of them to attend college full time. Veterans Administration officials are expecting about half a million benefits claims this fall, a 20 percent jump over the number normally filed.

However, colleges and universities must do more than just create programs and expect veterans to show up. There is a whole new set of barriers, reasons, and experiences that explain why more veterans don't go to college, according to findings from the ACE summit as well as focus groups. Veteran students tend to be nontraditional, older, first-generation students, who have served in a combat environment and are balancing work and family. They may be unaware of benefits and programs available to them.

Summit participants presented innovative programs, promising practices, and creative solutions to educational roadblocks for veterans. And while the specifics of their activities varied, at a minimum, higher education institutions that succeed in attracting and retaining veterans provide greater access to accurate and timely information, a streamlined process for accessing education benefits, academic credit for military training and experience, and veteran-specific transitional support programs on campus. In essence, they have changed their culture to accommodate a new phenomenon.

From statewide systems to a small community college, from an institution with a long association with the military to one with a famous history of war protests, here are some examples of creative ideas for transitioning veteran students.

The Community College That Could

Many community colleges have large populations of military veterans. In addition to their open access, these institutions have the added appeal of convenience and economy—and they offer remedial programs for those who are unsure of their college readiness.

Montgomery College, with locations in Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C., is uniquely situated to serve veterans. It is near several facilities treating military casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, including the National Rehabilitation Hospital, Washington DC VA Medical Center, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the National Naval Medical Center.

Proximity turned out to mean everything when Dr. Joseph Bleiberg, who pioneered the brain injury program at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, was looking for a community college with which to collaborate on an innovative program called C2C (Combat2College).

His hope was to help combat veterans successfully traverse the bridge between military service and college. Launched in fall 2008, the collaborative effort between the National Rehabilitation Hospital, Washington DC VA Medical Center, and Montgomery College is the first of its kind created especially for the host of young veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan who face a sometimes-difficult transition to college life.

C2C addresses the unique needs of these returning vets, especially those suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and provides significant services to students as well as training for faculty and staff. And because it leaves a "small and nondisruptive footprint" by making adjustments to existing college activities and resources requiring few new expenses or acquisitions, C2C can be easily replicated in community colleges elsewhere.

"Part of C2C's 'small footprint' also means that all the faculty and administrative staff involved with the program at Montgomery College have other jobs," says Rose Sachs, Montgomery College's chair of Disability Support Services and the C2C coordinator. "This program has no staff, just people who are very interested and believe strongly it's the right thing to do."

Sachs says that C2C makes simple changes to the courses that introduce all students to college life. "Veteran-relevant" themes—such as exploring how military training and combat experience can help promote success in college, and teaching students about learning disabilities, combat stress, PTSD, and TBI—are added to existing coursework. In addition, students experiencing special problems are referred to the many resources available in the Montgomery College community. "There are many other small but important adjustments we can make for our vets, such as helping a student get out of class early to avoid crowds," Sachs points out. "That doesn't take money; that's a change in culture."

Sachs will soon have a little money, however. C2C received $100,000 from the Wal-Mart Foundation. "We plan to use the money for direct services to our students, rather than hiring full-time staff," says Sachs. "We will be able to provide transportation to the campuses for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed if needed, and fund activities and refreshments for our three veterans clubs. We will be able to rent a bus and buy tickets to an event our vets want to attend."

Statewide Collaboration on Solutions

California's Troops to College is a statewide program initiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to attract more veterans to California's public universities and colleges by making campuses more veteran-friendly. The California Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of the Secretary of Education, the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and military branches within the state work together to achieve the goal of Troops to College: to ensure that veterans are aware of all their educational options.

Col. Bucky Peterson, USMC (Ret.), oversees the day-to-day implementation of the Troops to College program. He's also liaison to California's Secretary of Education and special assistant to the chancellor of the California State University (CSU) on matters pertaining to active duty and veterans' postsecondary education.

Camoflauge hat"California has more veterans and active duty personnel than any other state," Peterson notes. "The governor believed that we should be a national model, so he charged the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California to break down barriers and reach out to veterans to ensure they can take advantage of the opportunities California's 143 public campuses offer."

The first step to reducing the roadblocks was to figure out exactly what they were. "We asked active-duty vets why they weren't coming to school, and we got an earful," Peterson explains. "The vets said no one was reaching out to them or trying to solve problems with admissions or credit articulation, and that there was no partnering between bases and campuses that were in close proximity to each other."

Peterson says it was also clear that college and university leaders needed to have veterans "demystified." In an effort to help campus presidents better understand today's veterans, California State University Chancellor Charles Reed took 23 campus presidents to Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in Southern California, for two days to immerse them in the life of the young marine or sailor. "It had been hard for the presidents to understand how bright and wonderful these kids are. Having a chance to see them mastering complex computer systems totally changed the presidents' mind-set, and that was a wonderful thing to see," Peterson says.

Today, all CSU campuses have veteran service representatives dedicated to helping veterans and active-duty personnel, and many campuses offer student veteran groups and clubs. The Troops to College Web site exemplifies veteran-friendly best practices with easily accessible information on admissions requirements, student fees, transfer policies, and degree programs. The site also supplies online applications, links to benefits information, and the latest student veteran news.

But what gets Peterson really excited is that Troops to College is in the final phase of developing significant new initiatives to prepare veterans for high-demand positions in science, technology, and engineering. For example, Troops to Engineers is a pilot program that builds on the Governor's Engineering Initiative to bring 20,000 new engineers into the state's workforce. That initiative establishes programs at California's higher education institutions to expedite certification for veterans with engineering backgrounds. The Troops to Engineers effort adds a pre-engineering certificate program that will follow an apprenticeship-style, or "earn while you learn," format.

The key partners in the apprenticeship model are the employer, the state, the military, and the institutions of higher education. The program will be aligned to academic degree and certificate programs to build a pipeline to engineering careers. On-the-job training, as well as the curriculum, will be driven by the needs of the employer. "This will open up important employment opportunities for the approximately 3,000 service members discharged to California each year who hold engineering-related military jobs, and," points out Peterson, "it's a model program. Maybe next will be Troops to Accountants."

A Revolution at Berkeley

The University of California at Berkeley is part of the Troops to College state initiative. But at this school, there wasn't so much a need to demystify the veteran for the campus leadership as there was to destigmatize UC Berkeley for the transitioning veteran.

Berkeley's legendary protests of the 1960s against the Vietnam War are an undeniable part of the history of both the school and its community. However, even before Berkeley became a part of the Troops to College program and significantly ramped up its veterans programs and resources, there was a strong cohort of veterans among the students transferring to Berkeley—although they were hard to find.

10 Ways to Become More Veteran-Friendly

Here are recommendations that emerged from American Council on Education (ACE) meetings and focus groups, adapted from the ACE Issue Brief, "Serving Those Who Serve: Higher Education and America's Veterans."

1. Listen to veterans. Hold a roundtable of high-level campus administrators and student veterans—it's important to understand the range of their needs and hopes.

2. Assess your institution's strengths and weaknesses. Once you have heard what student veterans have to say, consider programs, services, and policies that could be initiated or improved.

3. Start a student veterans' group. If you have two or more veterans attending your institution, start a veterans' association—its mission can include ensuring that veterans get their education benefits and advocating for better policies and practices, while at the same time providing peer support.

4. Design a place for veterans to gather. Peer-to-peer support and resource centers can connect veterans to one another, which can also improve retention.

5. Have a point of contact. Providing one point of contact that offers comprehensive resource information to veterans can help lessen the impact of rapid deployment, separation, re-entry, and relocation.

6. Reorient student orientation. Veterans' counselors can inform student veterans about new campus policies, provide legislative updates on education benefits, and introduce veterans' groups. Flexible scheduling makes orientation more accessible to new student veterans and interaction with peers, faculty, and staff eases their transition.

7. Build programs that access veterans' strengths. The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities—a growing national consortium of universities—has done just that.

8. Educate faculty, staff, and students. Administrators and faculty who can inform and guide are vital to veterans' success. But the institutional shifts that are required aren't easy, and often call for major efforts to raise faculty, staff, and student awareness.

9. Partner with other organizations. To serve veterans effectively, colleges and universities need the expertise of other sectors, especially to find employment for veterans. Consider partnering with the preK-12 school system, the state's departments of workforce development and veteran affairs, the workforce investment board, and a local career center, as well as community leaders and elected officials.

10. Engage your community. These programs are very appealing and create enormous goodwill—people want to be able to support veterans. The programs can generate positive press for the university and an amazing awareness in the community about what you're doing.

"Long before Troops to College, when all we had was a paragraph on our Web site about vets' affairs, I was trying to get the veteran transfer students connected with each other and with local vet centers and other resources," says Ron Williams, UC Berkeley's program director of Re-entry Student and Veterans Programs and Services. "But they often didn't identify themselves as vets or [note it] on their applications."

But, things are changing at Berkeley. This year, more than 150 students identified themselves as veterans and are majoring in everything from engineering to languages to philosophy to peace and conflict studies. The campus is now gearing up for an influx of returning troops seeking admission. The Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parent Center now functions as the student services hub for veterans on the Berkeley campus.

Williams leads a new cross-campus team helping veterans adjust to life at UC Berkeley. Other specialists are from admissions, financial aid, counseling and psychological services, the Disabled Students Program, the Career Center, and the Cal Veterans Student Group. "Without this kind of direct-connect advocacy, the student can feel trapped between bureaucracies," says Williams. "It's not just a nice thing to do; it's helping them meet their educational goals."

Perks for veterans include priority enrollment, workshops, and a class specifically tailored to them. Williams created and teaches that class, called Veterans in Higher Education. "Using our '07 and '08 students as a type of focus group, we saw a need for a re-entry course just for vets that would acclimate them to the opportunities and expectations of student life at Berkeley," he says. Williams explains that part of the course centers on how to survive college by learning the most efficient study strategies, time management techniques, test preparation methods, and more.

Another part of the class affords the opportunity to connect with other new and experienced Berkeley veterans. "For that part of the class, I like to make use of student cofacilitators who have already successfully completed their first semester here," explains Williams. "They've been 'in the trenches,' so to speak, and point out the obstacles they had to navigate. They can speak from experience about adjusting to all the reading, writing, and other academic demands, and trying to balance that load with personal relationships, family, and work."

Williams believes that until a veteran's essential needs and basic requirements are met—whether it's overcoming financial complexities or any other number of transitions—it's largely impossible for any student to do the higher-level thinking required for coursework at Berkeley. "Most often they best achieve this by connecting with others from their cohort; they advocate for each other," says Williams.

Campus Veteran Centers Multiply in Minnesota

Minnesota also has launched a broad-based initiative at the state level aimed at facilitating a seamless transition from the battlefield to the classroom. And, as in California, it was the governor who was the catalyst for change. Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked all state government heads to review policies and procedures with an eye to removing barriers that prevented successful reintegration of military members and their families. A statewide summit in 2007 brought together families, psychologists, higher education institutions, and various veterans' offices, all with the common goal of serving veterans. A subsequent series of legislative actions instituted structural and long-lasting changes. The governor also gave strong support to the Minnesota National Guard's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program.

One of the most effective tools developed as part of a broader effort to better communicate with the state's veterans is a new Web site—www.mymilitaryeducation.org—designed to address the complex educational needs of military veterans. The site grew from the partnership among the Minnesota National Guard, the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs' Higher Education Veterans Programs (HEVP), and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU). It also included contributions from many other state government and social service agencies. "It's all about the partnerships," says Steven Frantz, system director of student life for MNSCU. "It's the secret to our success."

Mymilitaryeducation.org has a powerful search engine that allows users to seek specific information concerning military education benefits, Minnesota higher education institutions, the transfer of military credits, and military family resources and programs. Since the site launched in 2007, more than 30,000 contacts have been reached, with more than 90 percent of inquiries answered within 24 hours.

Readily available on the Web site is contact information for HEVP regional coordinators, who helped develop the site and who have worked with campuses to establish veterans' centers at 45 of the 54 MNSCU campuses. The regional coordinators assist members of the military and their family members as well as higher education staff and faculty. Users are encouraged to forge one-on-one, ongoing connections with their regional coordinators, who are personally involved with assisting the veterans with starting, and staying, in college. In addition, a chat service lets users talk in real time with credentialed counselors who are available seven days a week.

The Web site operates from the help center at Minnesota Online (www.minnesotaonline.org), the gateway to online programs and classes for the approximately 70,000 online students in the MNSCU system. "We already had the portal, so the infrastructure was in place for mymilitaryeducation.org," says Frantz. He explains that the help center advisers already answer basic questions, so they were supplemented by an expert on higher education veteran services.

There's another very important reason to provide Minnesota's veterans with all the information and support they need in one place, regardless of which of the 54 campuses they attend or whether they are online students. "Minnesota is unique because most of our veterans are National Guard and reserve rather than active and regular forces," Frantz explains. "That's not true in states that have large military installations. So when our guard and reserve forces are deployed, those are our neighbors; and when they come home, they're coming back to everywhere in Minnesota."

Revamping a Venerable Military Past

Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, Mississippi, was founded 130 years ago as Mississippi A&M College. In its earlier incarnation it had many military-oriented traditions, a corps of cadets, and armed service training programs in both world wars. In fact, the first president of the school was Gen. Stephen D. Lee, the youngest lieutenant general in the Civil War.

Another general recently serving as president from 2006 to 2008, retired four-star general Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong, conceived of the new G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery Center for America's Veterans on Mississippi State's campus. Montgomery, a 15-term congressman known as "Mr. Veteran" in the U.S. House of Representatives, authored the original Montgomery GI Bill.

The Montgomery Center's first director has his own military history. An Army National Guard major and Blackhawk helicopter pilot, Andrew Rendon is proud of how much the Montgomery Center has achieved in just two years. His vision is to establish and maintain a standard of military veteran-focused education and student support services that all universities could emulate. Rendon would like to see the school develop the nation's preeminent think tank with a focus on veteran affairs. He envisions a research institute that could study the efficacy of the GI bills as well as investigate other key veterans' issues.

His shorter-term goals are also ambitious. The center's programs include a comprehensive benefit counseling and certifying program, a veteran support group program (partnering with the counseling center), a veteran work study program, and the Veteran Transition Assistance Program to help with the transition into school and, upon graduation, into the workforce. Another component of MSU's veteran services is a recruiting program designed to aggressively recruit and retain veterans, service members, dependents, and survivors (VSDS).

Cap with a capital letter U on it"Before the Montgomery Center, the school provided what I call 'Tier 1' veteran-based student services—a person in the registrar's office who can provide assistance to the vets—which is what most universities have," says Rendon. "We could identify who was receiving the [benefits of the] GI Bill, and that was about it."

By adding questions to applications and hiring an outreach coordinator, he explains, the institution is developing the methodology to identify the whole VSDS population without encroaching on privacy. "We've identified 90 percent of our VSDS population and I strongly encourage schools to do this."

A year ago, Rendon hired an outreach coordinator who spends 50 percent of his time working with vets on campus and the other 50 percent going off campus to recruit potential new veteran students.

"We plug into the same basic model that the university's scholarships and admissions department uses to recruit, but we add to that," he says. "We go to military bases and have a presence at their college education fairs, we partner with other military bases in the area, and we tap into their transition programs and try to establish relationships with program coordinators."

Rendon says the center's outreach plan also targets the National Guard reserve units in the state. "We tap into the Guard's Recruiting Sustainment Programs," he says. "Before new recruits begin basic training, they drill every weekend, and we use the opportunity to invite them to campus to a football game and to show them our facilities." Rendon tells the recruits that he's not recruiting for MSU; he's encouraging them to go to college.

Read More Online

See "A Private University's Decade of Military Support" in Business Officer Plus.

The other component of Rendon's outreach efforts is networking with other universities. "The high tide raises all boats, and we make it a point to collect best practices from all universities' veterans' programs, attend workshops and seminars, and affiliate with ACE and other organizations," he says. Apparently it's working. The Montgomery Center has been recognized by ACE for its best practices and selected by Wal-Mart for a $100,000 award.

Campuses across the country, representing every sector in higher education, are beginning to organize their programs, services, and policies to reflect veteran-friendly approaches that help these students set and meet educational goals. And while an influx of students with full tuition paid, plus benefits, is welcome on any campus in a depressed economy, the consensus of college and university administrators is that we owe our veterans, and ourselves, the best that higher education has to offer.

AL RICKARD, president, Association Vision, Chantilly, Virginia, writes on higher education business topics for Business Officer.