COVER STORY: Forward, March
Photo courtesy Tidewater Community College
C O V E R S T O R Y
Colleges Work To Help Student Veterans Succeed
By Paul Bradley
After a 22-year career as a U.S. Navy aviator and a job as commanding officer and professor of naval science at Texas Tech University, Bruce Brunson now engages a different kind of battle.
Brunson is fighting on behalf of veterans who are leaving the military in huge numbers and heading to college. He’s the executive director of Tidewater Community College’s Center for Military and Veterans Education, which was established in 2011 to increase student success, provide consolidated student services and broaden the college’s already extensive services to military-related students.
About 300 miles away, in Charlotte, N.C., Nicholas Riggins, who served more than seven years in the Air Force, wages a similar battle on a smaller scale. Riggins is director of the Veterans Resource Center at Central Piedmont Community College, dedicated to helping veterans seeking a new career path, opportunity or job training. It’s the college where he earned a degree after getting out of the service.
“It’s important that returning veterans have a touch point in navigating college,” Riggins said. “Over 80 percent of our staff have served in the military or are serving, so they speak the language.”
TCC and CPCC are two examples of a growing effort to assist veterans in making a successful transition to civilian life. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 1 million veterans and their dependents have enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in just the past four years — an influx driven by the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and generous financial incentives under the Post 9-11 GI Bill, which generally cover a veteran’s tuition, housing and books.
Since the law took effect in 2009, former service members have received more than $25 billion in aid, which can be used to attend any public or private school. Colleges have not seen such a large number of veterans on their campuses since the end of the World War II, when the Montgomery GI Bill helped build the American middle class.
Colleges of all types are devoting more resources to veterans, recognizing they have special needs and challenges. According to the American Council on Education, 71 percent of 700 colleges and universities responding to an ACE survey reported having an office or department dedicated exclusively to serving veterans.
Many veterans arrive on campus facing an array of challenges in making the transition to college life. Some are medical or psychological. Then there are the cultural hurdles.
While many college newcomers are testing their independence after moving away from home for the first time, veterans typically are older, have real-world experience and might be supporting a family, working evenings and weekends.
Veterans also must navigate the Byzantine U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) bureaucracy to ensure that their tuition and other aid, such as housing or disability benefits, are paid on time.
Colleges are helping veterans with all those issues at their veterans’ centers. Among the largest is headquartered on the Virginia Beach campus of TCC, located in the state’s Hampton Roads region, which has a huge military presence. Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, is located there, as is Navy Air Station Oceana, and about 20 other military installations.
In the 2012-13 academic year, the CMVE served 14,691 military-related students, including 6,716 veterans, 2,125 active duty members, and 5,850 family members. More veterans use their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits at TCC than at any other community college in the United States, Brunson said.
The center employs 50 staffers spread across four campuses and four bases in the region.
“The center is unique, not only in its design, but in what we do,” Brunson said. “It’s like a mini-college within a college.”
CPCC, where about 2,200 student veterans are enrolled, has a Veterans Resource Office on two of its six campuses, with plans to expand to the remaining four campuses within a few years. Veterans can talk to counselors, conduct a job search in computer labs or simply relax with fellow veterans.
As veterans continue to flood campuses, colleges are devoting more attention to helping them succeed academically. CPCC, for example, has created a learning community solely for veterans, allowing them to take general education courses together with their peers. They can study together, tutor each other and assist one another in navigating academic challenges.
Colleges are also intensifying efforts to improve the chances of success by converting military training and experience into academic credit. Veterans complain that their military experience has not been fully accepted and they’re repeating coursework they took in the military, delaying their time to completion.
But translating military experience into academic credit can be a difficult task. According to a 2011 ACE report, “institutions struggle to award credit due to concerns about material covered, evaluation methods and instructor qualifications.” Sometimes military training doesn’t correspond to any course or degree program offered by a school, the report said.
At TCC, veterans center staff works with TCC deans, faculty, and student services personnel to design and deliver flexible courses, degrees, and certificate programs to military-related students. They also review students’ military and college transcripts and testing for the awarding of credit toward degree or certificate programs.
The award of credit for military training and experience is based on the recommendations of military coursework and experience by the ACE.
Currently, more than 2,300 colleges and universities rely on ACE to review various types of military training and experience and recommend how to translate them into academic credits. Like advanced placement exams or transfers from other schools, however, each college makes its own decision on how much credit to award. Practices, predictably, vary widely, leading to frustrations among some veterans who complain college courses cover material they already know.
“Some colleges will award credit and some won’t,” Brunson said. “That’s the problem.”
Several efforts are underway to bring some uniformity to the process. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about half the states have passed legislation directing their boards of education to develop policies to provide academic credit to veterans.
Seven Midwestern states — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri — have formed the Multi-State Collaborative on Military Credit to study the issue and share best practices. Ken Sauer of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education told a congressional committee that the group’s first task is to determine what kind of data needs to be collected to devise a credentialing system.
The movement to award academic credit for military experience is also gathering momentum at the national level. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has introduced legislation that would prod the Pentagon into helping returning servicemen convert their specialized military training into civilian careers.
The bill would provide to military members, while they are still enlisted, information about earning a civilian credential that matches their specialty training. The legislation would also encourage the U.S. Department of Defense to provide more information to credentialing organizations about military training and education to better ensure that specific military skills receive appropriate civilian credentials.
“Veterans who serve their country in order to protect our freedoms deserve every opportunity to find work when they come home,” Brown said in a statement. “They are among our most talented civilians, but are too often unable to get credentialed for the training they’ve received. That is why I support the Troop Talent Act of 2013, which would ensure a clearer and easier path to matching military skills with civilian accreditation. It is the right thing to do for our military men and women and would strengthen our country’s workforce.”