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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 September 21 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Welcome Back

A recent study by the American Council on Education found that 43 percent of all military undergraduates pursuing a post-secondary education were enrolled in community colleges in 2007-08, compared to 21 percent who attended four-year colleges.

The same study predicts that the more generous benefits under the new Post 9-11 GI Bill are likely to send increasing numbers of veterans and military personnel to four-year schools.

“Veterans and service members who are eligible for the new GI Bill will receive more generous benefits that will broaden the choices they have when pursuing higher education,” said Alexandria Walton Radford, the author of the report and a research associate at MPR Associates. “While these students have previously been concentrated at public two-year colleges, these new benefits may encourage them to seek entry into more expensive colleges if those institutions demonstrate responsiveness to their needs.”

Whether that predicted trend materializes or not, community colleges across the country are taking steps to make the transition from combat to the classroom easier. For many veterans, community colleges will remain the institutions of choice for veterans and military members.

“One of the reasons that community colleges are so popular among veterans and military members is that they really have pioneered things like distance learning,” said Matthew Pavelek, editor of GI Jobs, a magazine specializing in helping veterans make the transition from military life. “That allows military members to take courses while they are still in the service. And it makes a big difference that these schools are open enrollment.”

Military Friendly Schools

GI Jobs recently announced a list of military-friendly schools, raging from private colleges to community colleges to technical schools. More than 200 community colleges appear on the list, which judged schools on numerous factors, including efforts to recruit and retain military members, credit for military service, access to flexible learning options and veteran student composition.

“The list is especially important now because the recently enacted Post 9-11 GI Bill has give veterans virtually unlimited financial means to go to schools,” said GI Jobs publisher Rich McCormack. “Veterans can now enroll in any school, provided that they are academically qualified. So schools are clamoring for them like never before. Veterans need a trusted friend to help them decide where to get educated.”

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most comprehensive education benefit offered to veterans since the original GI Bill for World War II veterans was passed in 1944. Benefits for eligible veterans now include four years of in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, room and board, book stipends, tutoring fees and relocation costs.

The new law, which took effect Aug. 1, can also be complicated: There are three different payments, as opposed to one under the old system, and the eligibility requirements work on a sliding scale.

According to the ACE study, military undergraduates currently represent only about 4 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in postsecondary education, numbering about 660,000 veterans and 215,000 military members. About 47 percent of undergraduates were pursuing associate degrees.

But the number of veterans and military members seeking a college education is expected to grow over the next several years. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are an estimated 23.4 million veterans in the United States. Nearly 2 million military members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. GI Jobs predicts than 8 million veterans will be eligible for tuition benefits under the new GI Bill.

Rising Numbers

An estimated 112,000 claims for benefits under the new GI Bill have already been processed, and an estimated 250,000 veterans are expected to receive education benefits in the next two years, according to Veterans Affairs.

And the returning veterans differ from other college students. The ACE study found that:

  • 85 percent of military undergraduates are 24 or older.
  • Military undergraduates are more likely to be non-white than traditional undergraduates.
  • About three-quarters of veteran undergrads are married.

Montgomery College, in suburban Washington, D.C., is among the institutions that began planning to welcome veterans to campus even before the new GI Bill kicked in. Last year, the college launched its Combat2College initiative, said Rose Sachs, a professor who heads the program.

She describes the school’s Combat2College program as more of a philosophy than a formalized program.

“The program is about saying, ‘Thank you, welcome back,’ and, essentially, to assist students in adapting the skill set developed in military training to a successful college experience,” Sachs said. “The idea is not to isolate people, but to integrate people.”

C2C offers services for student veterans such as mentoring, academic advising and a first-year seminar focusing on campus resources, educational planning and how to apply military skills in the classroom.

The program also has organized outings for veterans to Baltimore Orioles games and other events. Social activities are an integral part of the C2C program
because it lets veterans meet other veterans and build relationships at the college, Sachs said.

Veterans on campus have expressed a desire to connect with one another, and C2C has promoted the formation of veterans clubs on campus.

“We reached out to the community, and asked the students what they are looking for,” she said. “What they are looking for is a connection. If a veteran who is older is sitting next to someone who is just out of college, they might have difficulty making a connection. They don’t have the same experiences or the same needs.”

Diversity Issue

“I really look at this as a diversity issue. The veterans are a group that has a shared experience that is different from other groups,” she said.

One of the prime missions of C2C is to help soldiers become students, Sachs said. Many students might have opted for the military out of high school instead of college because they were not academically inclined.“Many of the folks who went into the service did so because they were not students,” Sachs said. “That is not a criticism. That was an alternative for them. Now that they are coming back, they need to learn to be students, and community college is a great place to make that transition.”

Sachs frequently speaks at other schools interested in starting similar programs, emphasizing the need for more programs to assist student veterans on campuses across the nation. She said there is more work to be done, even on campuses where such programs already exist. Faculty and staff need to be educated on how to promote both access and success for veterans.

At Montgomery County Community College in suburban Philadelphia, 280 veterans were enrolled in the spring 2009 semester, said Steady Moono, vice president for student affairs. To better serve student veterans, the college established a Veterans Affairs Office as part of the school’s College Success Center. With a designated academic advisor, the college can assist student veterans with their academic careers as well as helping them access their benefits.

“Ours is a very deliberate process,” Moono said. “We have a process of working with veterans. We reach out to them before they get back from overseas. Once they get here, we have an office that is dedicated to them. The people in the offices become advocates for the veterans.”

Once a month, deans and faculty meet to discuss how best to assist veterans and military members.

“The veterans are adjusting to a new life,” Moono said. “They have to navigate college, and they need a support system. We want to be a destination college for veterans.”

Last year, student veterans at the college organized themselves into the Student Veterans Organization, which operates out of the college’s Office of Student Leadership and Involvement. The group helps organize career placement opportunities, advocate for veterans rights and provide a peer-support network.

Other colleges have taken different approaches. At Alabama’s Calhoun Community College, Stephanie Works, who works in the college’s financial aid office, has been designated to work exclusively with veterans returning to the classroom. The college enrolls an estimated 250 veterans.

A Welcome Presence

“A lot of them are coming in, but they don’t know how the new GI Bill works, or what it will cover,” she said. “We try to walk them through it. It really is my job to help them. They can come to me with any questions.”

Rob Steinmetz, Calhoun’s associate dean for enrollment management and registrar, said veterans are a welcome presence on campus.

“Colleges have long coveted and valued veterans in our classrooms,” he said. He said veterans bring maturity, life experiences, diversity, leadership, discipline and worldliness to the classroom. Other students and faculty benefit from the different perspectives that service members and veterans bring, he said.

Calhoun is located near the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, which is home to the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command, the Space and Missile Defense Command and major components of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Missile Defense Agency. The base serves a population of more than 150,000 soldiers, veterans and dependents.

Kellogg Community College in Michigan has taken much the same approach as Calhoun. A financial aid staffer has been named to work exclusively with returning veterans, said L. Marshall Washington, vice president for student affairs.

“I think it is the one-on-one contact that the veterans are looking for, and so are we,” Washington said. “We want to know them as an individual, rather than as a group. These are not typical students.”

The efforts at Calhoun and Kellogg resemble a Department of Veterans Affairs pilot program called VetSuccess on Campus, now being tested at the University of South Florida. The program places a VA counselor on campus to assist students with everything from academics to mental health referrals. The pilot program will last about a year. It will then be evaluated, and officials hope to implement it in other colleges across the country.

“It’s not just about veterans being able to go to school,’’ Will A. Gunn, general counsel for the Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Associated Press. “It’s about maximizing the chance for success.”

Washington said that’s the philosophy at Kellogg.

“Community colleges are a great place for veterans,” he said. “We have the whole spectrum of students on our campuses. These are places where students can find the niche. For veterans and others, we really offer a chance to be who you want to be.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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