SAN DIEGO — Given the wide differences among student-veterans in college preparedness, life experience and academic background, having a college campus fully equipped to service student-veterans after active duty may mean enlisting the help of outside organizations. In a session at the recent National Association for College Admission Counseling annual conference, representatives from Yale University as well as the nonprofits Service to School and the Warrior-Scholar Project focused on best practices for preparing and helping veterans enter higher education post-service.

Understanding your student-veterans

Debra Johns, associate director of admissions at Yale University, gave statistics on the national population of veterans. Of the 21.8 million veterans in the country, 2.5 million served recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the veterans who pursue higher education post-service, 34 percent pursue a four-year degree, compared with 28 percent of the nonmilitary population who pursue higher education, and 43 percent of veterans pursue a two-year degree, compared with 49 percent of nonmilitary students. Veterans are also much more likely to be first-generation college students, with 62 percent of veterans who go on to pursue higher education being first-generation college students, compared with the national average of 43 percent. In addition, veterans are highly clustered in certain areas, with 80 percent of all veterans living in only 28 states, with the top three most populous being, in order, California, Texas and Florida.

Know how your institution can better help veterans gain admittance

Beth Morgan of Service to School works with education centers on military bases to help provide educational services to transitioning veterans. These education centers offer counseling and information, assist service members with figuring out a preferred path to a college degree, assist with financial aid counseling, and assist with any corrections that might need to be made to joint services transcripts. A complementary program, the Transition Goals Plans Success program, offers preseparation counseling; revised benefits briefing to help veterans understand benefits post-service; and three different tracks for postservice success: a higher education track, career tech training track, and entrepreneurship track. Morgan works with active-service members at different points in the military life cycle to help plan and refine plans post-service. “I work with them to figure out what their plans might be and how that would translate to a college and university of choice,” she said.

Anna Ivey, former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and current staff member at Service to School, has been helping veterans with college applications for more than 15 years. During that time, Ivey has seen many sticking points for veterans with entirely manageable solutions on the college admissions end. For example, one application Ivey worked with was never able to be completed because the school asked for a midyear report from the applicant’s most recent institution, which wasn’t available because the applicant hadn’t been enrolled in an educational institution for more than a decade. Another institution required a report from a guidance counselor from a veteran applicant whose high school guidance counselor had retired and couldn’t be tracked down. In both cases, Ivey said, admissions officials at the institution were not open to hearing their required processes weren’t reasonable for the veteran applicants. “Re-evaluate your admissions processes at the college level and think about if you have an infrastructure that helps all students,” Ivey advised. Ivey went on to state that many colleges, unwittingly, favor 17-year-old applicants and can have requirements that make it close to impossible for older students to reasonably obtain admission. One strategy that might make the process more veteran-friendly would be enlisting the help of on-campus ROTC members to help evaluate veteran transcripts.

Ivey’s work includes helping veterans network, an idea she says many feel allergic to. The Service to School organization provides a built-in network of both fellow veterans and college and university admissions and enrollment officials, as well as firsthand mentoring from other veterans who have gone through the program. Ivey has helped more than 600 applicants find their own best college fit. For colleges and universities looking to increase their numbers of veterans on campus, Ivey suggested pairing with organizations such as VetLink, which partners with undergraduate institutions to create a pipeline of college-ready veterans. VetLink can also help interpret military service records and transcripts for admissions and enrollment staff who may not have much familiarity with joint service transcripts.

Learn from real-life veteran experiences

Christopher Howell spent nine years in the Australian army in special operations before he transferred to the University of Sydney, and from there to Yale. While at Yale, Howell partnered with a fellow student to create the Warrior-Scholar Project, a boot camp specifically designed to help prepare veterans to enter a higher education institution. The boot camps currently run trainings on 11 different campuses around the country. Howell estimated that fully 20 percent of participants aren’t sure if they intend to attend college post-service before entering the program, but almost all go on to apply afterward. Boot camps vary between one- and two-week-long segments, 14–16 hours per day, and are geared toward facilitating a transition from the military, increasing veteran graduation rates, and prepping leaders in the classroom. 

The boot camps are structured much like military boot camps to help provide a familiar framework for participants, and all admittances are based on need rather than merit. “Veterans have a tendency to massively underestimate what they’re capable of in college,” Howell said. “We’re here to help buoy their confidence.” Currently, most programs are based on humanities studies, with developing programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A great deal of the work the Warrior-Scholar Project does is focused on developing social and emotional mindsets appropriate for higher education that might be different from those instilled in the military. Since 2012, the Warrior-Scholar Project has worked with 300 veterans, and all who entered college after the boot camp have since stayed in college. 

Veteran finds success turning to nontraditional admissions

Ryan Pearson, a 12-year veteran of Navy active duty currently enrolled at Yale, spoke about his experience transitioning from active duty to higher education. When Pearson sought advising for preparing for a four-year university from the military, he was pushed toward online learning for a variety of reasons: convenience of online learning for an irregular work schedule; the flexibility of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges in accepting credits between other SOC institutions; and the benefits of Tuition Assistance and deployed distance learning. However, Pearson said, the negative aspects of online learning were not laid out to him: skepticism from college admissions staff regarding the rigor of online learning courses and the potential problem of interpreting why he had attended so many institutions, since his transcript had a patchwork of credits. 

Pearson received very little guidance regarding which college would be the right fit for him. Pearson’s own criteria involved searching for the best political science programs in the country, as this was his chosen field; cost of attendance and Yellow Ribbon eligibility; and institutions featuring a nontraditional admissions program, which might better assess the holistic potential of veterans and not just high school transcripts and SAT scores. Pearson added that for other veterans, top concerns might include:

  • Spouse’s career.
  • Potentially uprooting children to a new environment.
  • Employment opportunities.

Pearson perceived himself to be at a severe disadvantage when applying for admission because he had poor high school grades, it had been 12 years since he had occupied a classroom, and only one of the institutions to which he applied was willing to accept his joint services transcript. Pearson estimated the overall cost of his applications to be $4,000 to $5,000. Pearson ultimately applied to eight schools, four as a transfer student and four under nontraditional admissions processes that took a more holistic view of his student profile, including flying out to campuses for in-person interviews. As a transfer student, he was rejected by three out of four institutions. Under the nontraditional admissions banner, he was accepted to four out of four institutions.

Pearson’s conclusions, based on his experiences, are:

  • Communicating accurate cost of tuition, including the Yellow Ribbon program (Pearson referred potential students to http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/yellow_ribbon.asp), will help attract veterans to your universities.
  • Permitting joint services transcripts benefits both the student and the college.
  • Because the typical veteran profile is very different from a typical transfer student, having more holistic admissions processes helps more accurately assess veteran potential on campus. 

What does it mean to be a veteran-friendly campus?

Pearson said in order to be really “veteran-friendly,” a campus must first actually admit veterans on campus, and second, provide cultural transition opportunities such as a veterans association or built-in community. The entire panel echoed Pearson’s last point. Ivey pointed out that in a recent ranking of the top-five most veteran-friendly schools, three had veteran graduation rates of under 30 percent. Ivey stressed the key to being a veteran-friendly campus is found more in the number of veterans or nontraditional students enrolled and not a veterans service center or the personnel dedicated to student-veterans. Panelists also recommended talking to actual veterans on campus to discover what might make your campus more veteran-friendly. “There needs to be a cultural shift around diversity,” Ivey said. “It would be unacceptable for a campus to have one black or gay student on campus. That’s how we should feel about veterans.”

Source: Recruiting and Retaining Adult Learners