Analytics Central to a Supportive Veteran InstitutionTed Barco | Director of the Student Veterans Resource Center, University of Georgia
The following interview is with Ted Barco, director of the Student Veterans Resource Center at the University of Georgia. The University of Georgia was named to the Military Times’ recent Best for Vets list, no small achievement given the number of institutions that are vying to serve this unique and growing student demographic. In this interview Barco, a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel,discusses some of the work his institution is doing to serve this student group and shares his thoughts on what it takes to stand out in this marketplace.
1. What are the biggest challenges veteran students face when it comes to accessing higher education?
The biggest challenge is trying to discover what’s in the realm of the possible—Am I going to continue on a vocational track outside of the military and earn a technical degree or am I going to look into an occupational or professional track? in which case colleges/universities are a very good fit. With that, some of our student veterans deal with an issue of sense of identity. The University of Georgia is isolated from most military bases; we have 35,000 students and roughly 250 veterans. If you’re coming to UGA, you’re going to have to integrate and that realization develops from a clear sense of identity (i.e. who you are and where you are going).
Once you decide to come to UGA, perhaps one of the hardest things is navigating through the application process. At Georgia we have almost no freshmen because most of our student veterans come to us with some number of transferrable credits. Today, over 95 percent of our undergraduate student veterans are transfer students.
Once they meet the admissions standards, the next issue is understanding costs and available benefits. We’ve liaised with leaders in financial aid, admissions and with the registrar’s office to help prospective students mitigate the challenge of attending the university, including where benefits may or may not be available.
2. Building on that, what are some of the challenges they face when it comes to persisting through a postsecondary degree?
One of the major challenges a veteran often faces is a limited benefit stream. Most of our veterans are on the post-9/11 GI Bill benefit and that only lasts so long. It’s generally 36 academic months. The challenge is securing a degree within that defined time period. Many of our student veterans attempt to live off the cost-of-living benefit secured from the VA. If they have families, that’s a little bit of a stretch. To accommodate the exceedingly high cost of taking care of a family about half of our veterans take part-time or full-time work. This creates other challenges such as finding the time and opportunity to engage in extracurricular activities that are so important to the university experience.
Adding to this challenge, our vets are about 10 years older than the students sitting in front of them or to their left or their right.
Armed with that context, what we’ve got to do is connect these older and often seemingly self-reliant student veterans with a menu of resources to include mentoring, academic advisement, health care, financial aid, tutoring, and recreational sports. If they choose to navigate through some of this on their own then we must enable them to do so. If they don’t, it’s not important that they know where the resources are. What’s important is they know where we are and our job is to effectively and efficiently connect them to what they need, when they need it.
3. How does your office keep track of all the veterans that are coming in and out of the institution?
One of the challenges that everybody faces is data. This time last year, one of the first things we did is we had to get our arms around who are our student veterans. We worked with UGA’s Institutional Research Office and with the Office of Admissions both at the graduate and undergraduate level to put in place methodologies by which we can identify our veterans. Now as students enter into the university, on the application forms, we’re inputting information about their veteran status. We also partnered with the Registrar’s Office. They code anyone using veteran’s benefits so we can now identify every single veteran in the University of Georgia who’s receiving VA benefits and we also can identify those that are receiving [Department of Defense] benefits as well.
The great unknown, and this is a challenge to many other colleges, is there is a shadow population of veterans who did not code themselves on the application forms, have not self identified, or are not receiving benefits either because they’re on scholarship or because their benefits are exhausted. Those are the challenging ones that we’re trying to identify now through a variety of means such as marketing and outreach
4. What are some of the things your institution has done to help veterans overcome these obstacles and succeed through their academic program?
For us, we’re 14 months old and we’ve been running really hard during that time to envision, design and implement strategies and programs that are of value to our student veterans. We’re a work in progress and we’re agile; both are good things. In general terms, here are our four focus areas:
1. Ease the transition into the University of Georgia
As suggested, most of our undergraduates are transfer students who have already successfully transitioned out of the military, achieved a 3.2 GPA and were admitted into UGA. Our challenge is now successfully transitioning them into UGA, a tier-one research university. We do this through a variety of means, including a, veteran-specific orientation, transition mentoring program and an initial meet-and-greet event.
2. Enable access to services
Given our student veterans are generally self-reliant, then what we need is to make sure they have a menu of programs and services they can choose from and make sure those programs meet their needs. Our Student Veterans Resource Center does this through a variety of means to include our weekly newsletter, our web portal, our SVRC Help Desk, and our expansive network of college, staff and community liaisons.
3. Facilitate career readiness
We had the opportunity to meet with a former assistant secretary of labor and in the discussions with him one of things he said was people all want to hire veterans, but at the end of the day it’s a challenge, in some cases, because veterans may not have the soft skills employers require. What we try to do is to encourage the development of soft skills through programs that connect veterans to opportunities whether those be in one of UGA’s 700 organizational clubs, recreational sports, study-abroad, and/or any number of corporate internships programs. We also partner with a variety of organizations to ensure our veterans are positioned, through mentoring, resumes writing and interviewing skills, to compete for opportunities in today’s demanding job market.
4. Continuously encourage performance, retention and graduation
At UGA our average student veteran’s age is 31, our undergraduate GPA is about 3.2 with a 14-hour course load and, remarkably, our retention rate is about 90 percent. As I talk to my peers across the nation, what I’ve seen is one size doesn’t fit all. You can’t take what works at Georgia and plug it in to another institution. Every institution designs their programs around the contextual needs associated with their particular audience.
So how do we do that?
The first thing we did was to create a student veteran lounge. From a visibility and a status perspective, it is probably the best piece of real estate in our Tate Student Center. Today, the First Data Student Veterans Lounge gives our student veterans a place to gather. We also have an active Student Veterans Association (SVA) and that is critical because the SVA partners with us in making sure that programs that we envision are needed, come to fruition and, ultimately, succeed.
Last fall we spent the bulk of our time building a network of liaisons. If there is a service or a resource you need at this university, chances are we have a specific veteran’s liaison that I can reach out to and they will immediately connect with me and with the student veteran.
Ultimately, student veterans succeed because they are surrounded by a responsive system that supports them; that’s what we are trying to build at UGA.
5. In general, what does it take for a university to really stand out as an institution that provides a positive and supportive environment for veteran students?
At UGA it starts at the top level with university leadership. Our university leaders, to include the President, Provost, VP for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, strongly support student veterans. Collectively we are looking long term to ensure the programs we put in place will give us the outcomes we want.
As we do this, we are also making sure that we use a holistic approach. Our veterans are arguably among the most diverse and globally experienced members of the UGA community, so we actively partner with a wide range of university and community organizations to enable a pathway of success.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator