Standardizing Veteran-Friendliness: Finding a Definition
The following interview is with Kris Perry, director of office of veterans’ affairs and military programs at the University of Connecticut, and David Vacchi, strategic coordinator of the student veteran resource center at UMass-Amherst. Perry and Vacchi are leading the national charge to improve higher education for veterans and active military personnel. In this interview, they discuss the problems with the current usage of the term “military-friendly” and share their thoughts on what it’s going to take to improve that definition.
1. What is the problem with the current definition of military friendliness?
David Vacchi (DV): I’m not sure there is a definition of military friendliness. There’s no baseline. It doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone who hears it.
Kristopher Perry (KP): From the perspective of the University of Connecticut, we’ve participated in three self-report surveys done by three different organizations. Those surveys do have some overlap but by and large the criteria they use to judge military-friendly or best-for-veterans are in no way streamlined or standardized.
2. How are veteran students affected by attending military-friendly institutions whose practices fall short of that claim?
KP: Veterans oftentimes don’t come straight into school right after they come out of service or even more so have never even applied to a college or university. They don’t really know what they’re doing and they’re going to fall back on these kinds of rankings. Without any sort of standardized ranking system or qualifications or metrics, that veteran could very well choose a university that really is not right for him or his family or his particular situation.
3. What are the characteristics of a truly military-friendly institution?
DV: There’s not a uniform set of characteristics but for me it kind of goes through a progression. The first thing is that in the recruiting process, every piece of information that they get from the institution is going to be honest and above board. The second piece is that in the administrative process of joining the institution, those processes are not discriminatory against veterans and that [upon enrolling], the institution attempts to consider college credit for experience or training conducted within the military. Then you talk about recurring services that are friendly to everybody.
[The ‘military-friendly surveys] don’t really address the large cultural issue, which is “Are veterans getting respected within the classroom by both faculty and students? Are they able to acknowledge their veteran status and not have people look at them funny or treat them in a discriminatory manner because they are military or veterans?”
KP: My guidance to my staff is we are going to be veteran supporters, which kind of gets away from this idea of military friendliness. The reason we’ve gone with veteran supportive is because every veteran needs something different. The other key thing I talk to my staff about is this idea of educational benefits that are the necessary but not sufficient part of supporting our veterans. If our veterans can’t get the benefits, then we’re failing miserably as an institution because it’s an inherently financial process that needs to be done correctly or it puts our veterans at a huge disadvantage.
That’s when you get into the supportive part; what does your own campus have to offer, how can it be modified to support its veteran students, what does it offer that’s not needed for veteran students and what can it provide that the university doesn’t already provide that’s just focused on your veteran students?
That’s the philosophy we use here at the University of Connecticut; one veteran at a time. Instead of trying to be that one-stop shop where we solve every problem for every veteran regardless of the nature, we try to become the first-stop shop and that gives us the opportunity to interact with the veterans, to interact with whatever campus issue or office that this veteran is struggling with.
4. What’s it going to take to change the national definition of military friendliness? Given the range of institutions that are out there, should there even be a standard to recognize the national definition?
DV: There has to be some sort of common definition that can be broad enough to encompass varying institutions with varying missions and student body types. It can’t be overly specific. I’m actually hoping that the term “military-friendly” will go away in its entirety. At most, 15 percent or so are currently in the military. The rest are separated from the military and have some sort of veteran status. I’ve written in my own work that for that reason, that’s why we stick with veteran-friendly.
KP: The government has actually done us a favor over the past couple of years. President Obama put out a couple years ago “The Principles of Excellence.” Not so long ago, the VA and the Department of Education issued “8 Keys to Success for Colleges and Universities in Dealing with their Veteran Students or Military Students.” It’s a great place for us to begin our discussion on how to standardize. The government recognized that there are some issues out there with how veteran benefits are done at universities and how they’re supported. It takes more than just taking the money out of the government to support a veteran. The whole idea of quantitative metrics is that it’s difficult to quantify. There is a lot of qualitative measurement in university and how it supports its veterans and there’s also a lot of individuality into that. We’re never going to narrow it down to, “If a university does ABCD all the way through triple-Z then they are veteran-supportive.”
The idea is to provide a framework for a university to operate under so that it understands what it means to support a veteran from the time they walk in the door with however many college credits to get them through the door to graduation.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of overcoming the misuse of the term veteran friendly- or military-friendly and what it takes for institutions to really support the retention and access of this student population?
DV: The philosophy of an institution has to be a non-predatory philosophy. Veterans are not a cash cow—yes they have the GI Bill and chances are they aren’t going into tremendous debt to be students, but that should not be taken advantage of by institutions.
If you’re approaching veterans in a respectful manner, you don’t have to fall all over yourself to thank veterans or give them any special treatment but if veterans are simply not being discriminated against in their pursuit of their college degree then that goes a long way for institutions toward doing that.
KP: Veterans are a unique population on campuses and they’re a growing percentage of our students. They aren’t your typical 18- to 22-year-old undergraduate student, and veterans do require specific help in navigating the different organizational functions that exist on campuses. A university really falls short in its obligation to the taxpayers if they don’t make an effort to invest individually in our veterans.
It’s a special population. It does have that one thing that binds them all together—the fact that they all voluntarily served for their country and now they are seeking to earn credentials. Universities and colleges have an obligation to the state to the government, to the taxpayers to be good stewards to that money, to be sure that the ultimate goal of that is to achieve the graduation of a veteran, getting them off the campus with a degree in hand.
This interview has been edited for length.
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- Though there is currently no standardized definition for veteran-friendly or military-friendly, it would be very difficult to create one that adequately covers what it takes.
- In order to be truly veteran-friendly, institutions should approach veterans in a respectful manner rather than seeing them as cash cows and approaching them in a predatory manner.
Author Perspective: Administrator