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Overcoming the Critical Need for Better Support of Military Spouses in Higher Education

Spouses of active military personnel and veterans face a number of challenges in their higher education journeys that colleges and universities can take steps towards ameliorating.

In the last ten years, institutions of higher education have made a great deal of progress towards understanding the military student. The focus, however, has been predominantly on the returning war veterans and active duty service members, and less on the military spouse. This kind of thinking reinforces an archaic notion that spouses of service members are not important sources of intellectual or even market capital, which is simply not the case.

According to a 2011 report completed by the National Military Family Association (NMFA), the military community makes up just one percent of the American population. However, as of August 1, 2009, this seemingly small percentage became a mighty force across college campuses, as nearly two million military spouses and family members became eligible for higher education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Furthermore, statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs report that nearly 20 percent of people using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are spouses and dependents of military service members. This equates to close to $3 billion spent by the VA for transferred benefits since the option for transferability from service member to dependents began in 2009.

While military spouse student populations are an undeniable source of capital, they face significant challenges that often hinder their ability to pursue degrees in higher education. According to a 2011 report from the National Military Family Association Summit, the top five most commonly cited significant life events for military spouses are:

  1. Deployed family member often on combat missions
  2. Financial setbacks
  3. Reintegrating family members after deployment
  4. Frequent Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves
  5. Spouse losing her/his job with every PCS

Each major event represents a life transition and can not only cause significant stress for the military spouse, but can also create significant barriers in their educational pursuits. While understanding these transitions may be hard to imagine without direct experience, institutions of higher education can more effectively serve this diverse population of learners by implementing changes that could greatly enhance the experience of military spouse learners pursuing degrees in higher education.

Examples of possible change for institutions of higher education would include an increased sensitivity to the lifestyle of military spouses by decreasing existing institutional barriers. These changes might include easing difficult admission policies that discourage students from following through with their applications. Institutions should also look at creating more centralized organizational structures for student services, adhering to the policies of the Service Members Opportunity Colleges (SOC), and accelerated degree programs that train military spouse learners for portable career options. It is also important for institutions to provide better training and education for faculty and staff to help them understand and serve the specific needs of the military spouse student population. In particular, educators and staff members could demonstrate sensitivity to the lifestyle, while not giving special treatment. Employing the use of peer military spouse mentors could assist in this process, as well as having advisors and educators who have been military spouses themselves, as military spouses often express appreciation when someone “gets them.”

Overall, higher education institutions, program advisors, and faculty can and should be encouraged to open their doors in servicing this special student population. With minimal institutional, programmatic, and curriculum efforts, the opportunity to have military spouses in the classroom can be a mutually beneficial experience. Military spouses as a potential community of adult learners are incredibly diverse and excellent sources of human, intellectual, and market capital that are waiting to be explored.

Ashley Gleiman will be presenting on this topic on November 7 at the AAACE conference in Las Vegas. To find out more, please click here.