Published on 2012/11/29
Labeling a college or university as “Military Friendly” is more than just a marketing plot. It should be a marker that signifies an institution as being culturally in-tune with the distinct lifestyle and needs of active and veteran military students.

Several years ago, organizations and higher education institutions adopted the use of the monikers “military friendly” and “veteran friendly” as a way to distinguish themselves in the market. At the time, these were meant as stamps of approval indicating an organization had policies, practices, or services that catered to the needs and lifestyles of active duty servicemembers and veterans. The only problem is that it caught on too well; with the saturation of these terms in the current market, not everyone who calls themselves “military friendly” actually is military friendly—or even knows what it really means.

What do they mean and, more importantly, how does an institution achieve these as operational targets instead of marketing rhetoric? The policies and practices of an institution have to be flexible, compassionate, and aware. The lifestyle of military members is one of moving targets, changing plans, and influences outside their control. Changes in operational tempo or deployment can happen with little or no warning. These conditions have no regard to the syllabus of a 16-week course or an institution’s drop policies or refund dates.

Flexibility means not just talking to the servicemember, but actually listening to their goals and dreams. Their desired professional destination should then be coupled with both the offerings of an institution, and best maximization of credits they may have for military training and experience. Sometimes this means the best degree program for a student is found at another college. A colleague said it best when he called for putting the uniform before the dollar sign, and cautioned against forcing a servicemember’s interests and transcript credits to fit in one of your degree plans.

Compassion for servicemembers is not pity. It is human understanding of the forces they can’t control. A mid-semester deployment may mean extending term dates for an online class or offering a course drop without penalty for an on-campus section. This will, and often does, differ from the practice and policies of most large institutions. The activation of a reservist or National Guard member is probably not an everyday occurrence handled by a college admissions or business office. It’s imperative that the servicemember it not made to feel that their service is an inconvenience to the college staff member with whom they are speaking.

Awareness is perhaps the hardest of these. It’s hard because it involves more than the reworking of policy language; it can involve the reprogramming of an entire college culture. These cultures, in many cases, have existed for decades—if not more than a century. It is amazing the minor nuances of social and instructional settings that can take the meaning out of being “military friendly.” Previously deployed individuals can often feel isolated in settings where they feel the other students have less life experience than they do. They often want to sit in the back row of a room without having their back to the door. These feelings and actions can seem disruptive to the plans of the faculty or maybe to the other students. Allowing such concessions, however, allows servicemembers to participate in the learning community without perceiving they are at a disadvantage. This can be crucial to their success.

Institutions like my own—and many more across the country—have begun developing and implementing campus-wide faculty and staff training to raise awareness of the traits and learning barriers often found in active duty or veterans returning to campus (physical and online). Some have gone as far as to create military “zones” where students can mentor each other and work with staff members specially trained in education funding, VA medical benefits etc.

There are valuable resources to being “Military Friendly,” such as the Military Students Bill of Rights, published by the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges. I believe, though, that truly achieving this status takes more than policy.

It is culture and it is respect.

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Readers Comments

Rebecca Cruser 2012/11/29 at 9:15 am

I think in terms of helping servicemembers be comfortable at college and finding an appropriate institution, it starts with guidance. There needs to be more and better guidance available for these servicemembers as they go through their decision to attend college. Too often they are overwhelmed, and too often, as Mr. Rosenbalm aptly points out, the empty marketing moniker of “military friendly” touted by many for-profit colleges with high tuition and high dropout rates wins out.

This results in an uninformed and badly-suited college choice, and often in wasted benefit dollars. Even published lists such as G.I. Jobs’ “Guide to Military Friendly Schools”, though it might have some criteria, does not have strict guidelines for which schools they publish/endorse as Military Friendly. Before you even get to the college itself, there is far too much misinformation and marketing out there for servicemembers to make an informed decision on their own. I personally would love to see funding committed to expanding the availability of professionals/counselors to guide servicemembers through this process.

Yvonne Laperriere 2012/11/29 at 11:39 am

I think the author is right to emphasize respect and compassion over basic policy changes in accomodating and welcoming military or ex-military students. Not only is it a very apt observation, I believe that thinking about it from this angle can really simplify the idea of being “military friendly” for many institutions who either don’t quite understand what this means or don’t know how to make it happen.

Keep it simple: be compassionate, be respectful, be flexible; seek guidance or support from military professionals to inform your policy changes, and the rest will fall into place. I have heard, in terms of vying for “military friendly” status, a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t attitude”– that is, colleges feel as if they can’t afford to not be on these lists and miss out on a whole demographic of students, but they also don’t feel confident that they can implement a successful “military friendly” policy.

Quincy Bauer 2012/11/29 at 9:05 pm

I agree with Mr. Rosenbalm’s stance wholeheartedly and I ask: where is the government in all this? The implementation of the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill has really altered the landscape for military students and the colleges serving them. Now, I shouldn’t say “where is the government” because I know that as we speak there are bills being discussed to more strictly regulate which is a military school and which isn’t’; but beyond eliminating the “bogus” options, I think there needs to be funding committed to helping colleges develop infrastructure to be successful and supportive “military friendly” schools, whether this is the availability of consultants, or even something as simple as a carefully researched and officially endorsed best practices guide. I look forward to seeing these kind of changes in the near future.

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