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2016 October 24 - 04:12 pm

Overcoming Four Myths About Military-Connected Students

Colleges Must Take Initiative To Help Veterans Succeed on Campus

In 2008, the Post- 9/11 GI Bill expanded educational benefits for veterans, and college enrollment of veterans has since doubled. Most institutions now dedicate a significant amount of personnel and resources to enhancing the success of military-connected students.

U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., recently introduced a bill to help active-duty military members and veterans attending community colleges receive the funding they’ve earned. In California, for example, many community colleges have multiple campuses, making it harder to certify service members’ enrollment information and delaying payment of their education benefits. These updated rules would streamline the process by cutting out unnecessary paperwork.

This is a great example of taking initiative to support military students, but a widespread disconnect still exists between institutions of higher education and their military students. Many schools want to serve veterans well, but they don’t always know how to do this effectively.

About 40 percent of student veterans attend community colleges, so it’s especially important for these institutions to understand military-connected students and their needs.

Uncovering the Misconceptions

A few years ago, my company joined with NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education to assess colleges’ and universities’ efforts to measure and enhance the success of military-connected students. Our researchers surveyed institutions and interviewed their leaders, student success coaches, and others serving this population.

Although the study found many programs and initiatives designed to support military-connected students, only 25 percent of responding institutions indicated having a detailed understanding of why these students fail to complete degrees. In addition, the research turned up several common and persistent misconceptions about military-connected students, including:

• Military-connected students have low success rates.

Student Veterans of America reviewed degree completion rates of veterans who used their Post-9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill benefits and compared those figures with data from other U.S. college students. This study showed a 51.7 percent completion rate among veterans for postsecondary degrees or certificates, which is similar to the completion rate for traditional college students and much higher than the rate among the post-traditional students — working adults and others — who most closely resemble active-duty students and student veterans. In other words, there is no reason to think military-connected students are less likely to succeed than other student groups.

• Military-connected students are less prepared for college.

Military experience instills character traits essential for student success, such as hard work, discipline, goal-setting, and accountability. What most military-connected students need is direction in adapting this skill set to the academic setting. In particular, military-connected students often need support transitioning from the highly structured military environment to the free-form world of student life.

• Military-connected students are less open to support.

It’s true that military service instills a strong sense of self-reliance. However, it also emphasizes teamwork and mutual trust. All students are more receptive to support when it’s positioned as a standard compo nent to ensure everyone’s success, as opposed to a targeted offering for those expected to fail. Cast off the negative stigma of support, and everyone is more likely to take advantage of it.

• Military-connected students are outspoken when dissatisfied.

Higher-ranking individuals might be accustomed to giving commands, but everyone starts out taking orders. Service members are expected to fulfill their duties in all situations, no matter how unpleasant or challenging. They have to tolerate circumstances many civilians have never faced.

This can actually make some military students less likely to question authority or advocate for themselves. An academic setting has a different set of rules from the military, and some student service members or veterans simply need guidance on how to express concerns constructively.

So what can be done at community colleges to overcome these misconceptions and improve support for student veterans and active-duty service members? Consider the following ideas.

1. Reach across departments. Like all students, veterans and those on active duty can’t succeed through the support of a single, specialized department. They interact with an array of faculty and staff members. Admissions departments, financial-aid officers, advisers, professors, and others need basic literacy in the various student populations they serve and must communicate data and insights across departments.

In New York, the veteran resources director at one community college is breaking down departmental silos by volunteering with the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. This involvement helps bring together campus faculty and staff with military-connected students at awareness events.

2. Offer proactive support. Don’t expect students to come to you for help or wait until they are showing signs of struggling to reach out. Create support programs that engage students from the point of inquiry and help them develop the habits they need to succeed. Assist them from the start in defining a vision of their future, creating a plan for getting there, learning to identify and overcome obstacles, and staying motivated along the way. Proactively addressing the needs of your military-connected students will pave their way to success.

3. Give credit for past experience. Students are more likely to finish their degrees if the path between enrollment and graduation is shortened. Especially for military-connected students, who are often balancing work, family, and other commitments with their academic careers, time is money. One way to make graduation more attainable is to give military-connected students full credit for previous learning. Students who receive prior learning credits have completion rates 2.5 times higher than those who don’t.

With any step you take to support military-connected students, remember that each student is unique. No one label defines an individual. It’s important to understand the common challenges students from a particular background often face, but it’s equally important to appreciate their differences.

One thing is certain: Military-connected students have each made sacrifices for our country and deserve our support in transitioning to the next phase of their lives. With a little effort, we can smooth that transition and ensure that all of our current and former service members can enjoy the full benefits of higher education.

Pete Wheelan, CEO of Inside Track, has dedicated his career to leading missiondriven, high-growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at Blurb, a groundbreaking leader in unleashing creative expression through self-published books.

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