Published on 2012/12/18
Institutions of higher education have the daunting task of ensuring quality educational programs while keeping up with the ever-changing demands of diverse student populations. Military students—including active duty, reserves, veterans, and military spouses—are perhaps one of the most diverse student populations seen on many of our U.S. college campuses today. In fact, according to a 2011 Department of Defense Demographic report profiling military communities, the military is probably the best representation of diversity in American society than any other single profession.

In my experience in higher education over the past 12 years, I have come to realize that there are two schools of thought when it comes to military student populations and student services in higher education:

  1. Assimilate and Integrate: you are a student after all.
  2. Separate: you have specific needs and barriers that are different.

Overall, there is no right or wrong answer for how to work with military students on college campuses and I honestly believe that most (if not all) institutions want to help military students succeed and therefore are “Military Friendly.” However, the concern with the current trend to be “Military Friendly,” has left many of us questioning what that means exactly. Unfortunately, for most military students there is no way of knowing what the phrase really means. A quick study of the subject reveals that in the loosest interpretation it means that military students are welcome and the school has programs, which have been approved by the VA for using the GI Bill. Unfortunately, in many cases that is all it takes for a school to claim they are “Military Friendly.”

There are other things schools do to claim the “Military Friendly” title. These include basics such as decreasing institutional barriers, obtaining a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Defense to use Government tuition assistance funding, and networking with other institutions to ensure transferability of credit through the Service Members Opportunity College (SOC). Taking what I know from years of experience and relevant research, here are five important ways institutions of higher education can excel beyond the “Military Friendly” title:

1. Top-Down Support:

It’s no secret that top-down support within the institution can make things happen more efficiently and effectively. Demonstrating high-level support (from the president’s office down throughout the institution) for military students, veterans, and military spouses, and developing policies aimed at helping them connect and succeed will encourage participation and trust from staff, faculty, and the students themselves. High-level administrators implementing a task force that includes military students within the institution might be one way to actualize and demonstrate top-down support.

2. Central Point of Contact:

While many institutions continue to follow a decentralized organizational model, military students often suggest that having a single point of contact on campus would better help them navigate the college experience. While a hands-on approach is ideal, the access point could also include an easy to navigate and comprehensive website. Many schools often use their VA certifying official as a point of contact, but these individuals often hold many roles that can take their focus away from the individual student. Therefore, institutions should strive to employ adequate numbers of employees that are educated on the specific needs of military student populations.

3. Campus Resources:

Research proves that students seek out others similar to themselves. This is a cultural phenomenon that describes how some communities thrive and operate. With military students, it is a type of understanding of one another’s hardships and a psychological measure that reflects a real sense of belonging. While trained advisor and career counselors should be the norm, employing trained counseling professionals for military students to turn to can provide the crucial support they need to remain students in your institution. Support is a major factor in student retention rates. With the significant life challenges our military students have faced over the last 12 years at war, having resources for the mind/body/spirit challenges many military students may face is important. Support can come in the form of psychological counselors, health services familiar with military students, peer mentoring, and military student associations such as veterans’ organizations or community forums for military service members and their spouses.

4. Advising and Career Services:

Every military student needs guidance in some form or another. Whether it be informational, developmental, or motivational; student service staff in the form of academic advisors and career counselors should be well-educated on the barriers and perceptions of military students. One sure way to alleviate this concern is to hire veterans, military spouses, or someone who has walked the walk and talked the talk; someone who these students can relate to.

5. Money Matters:

Financial concerns and/or barriers are a top concern of most every military student. Even those using veteran’s benefits comes along with the daunting task of navigating the processes necessary to access those funds, and doing it in a timely manner. Providing trained financial aid advisors and/or campus personnel educated in the processes of military tuition assistance benefits (including veteran’s affairs, spousal tuition assistance, military scholarships, etc.) who are available for military students is crucial. Streamlined processes in these matters make a big difference.

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Readers Comments

Neville Lansing 2012/12/18 at 10:17 am

Central point of contact is an important one. Given the very strict and regimented structure of military life, veteran students may crave a comparable kind of structure in the higher ed environment.

Making an effort to give them that structure they are looking for could really appeal to the military sensibility. This could be done by, at the very least organizing a central point of contact for military students, and beyond that, perhaps creating some kind of tree or diagram or other clear visual to illustrate what the military services are on campus, how they are connected, what their functions are.

Stephen Gotti 2012/12/18 at 2:51 pm

These five points outlined may seem basic, but I think they are right on point, and I think they are a wakeup call for a lot of institutions who are not making even these efforts to be military friendly! The key to many of them is: insiders. Have people who know the ins and outs of the military, of the financial process, of the transition to civilian life. With that understanding and support there, veterans are much more likely to succeed.

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