Published on 2012/10/15

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.

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Readers Comments

Frank Gowen 2012/10/15 at 7:55 am

Though it was written before the 2009 Post 9/11 GI Bill that Ms. Gleiman mentions, the RAND Corporation 2005 research on military spouse employment is worth a read, particularly in this context (

They identify that one of the main improvements to be made to reduce barriers to employment is better, more flexible, and more widely available childcare for military spouses. Ms. Gleiman does not mention this, but I believe this is still a major barrier to many military spouses who may wish to pursue some form of higher education. The RAND report also suggests that the military focus on making distance or online learning opportunities available for military spouses. I believe this is also on point, as it realistically addresses the accessibility issue; whether military spouses may not be able to leave the home because of child care duties, or whether travel in general to attend a college or training institution is difficult.

I think that distance or online education will be the empowering factor for military spouses and that it is the affordable and efficient way forward.

Ashley Gleiman 2012/10/15 at 8:19 pm

Thank you for commenting and I agree that the RAND study you mention is worth the read. Not to dismiss the statement of childcare being a significant barrier (it most certainly is important), but as a response to the RAND study there was a significant increase in online and distance learning programs available for military spouses. In fact this was the same time frame that many for-profit universities began targeting military spouses with aggressive advertising tactics. The result became a generation of learners with high student debt and a continued lack of preparedness for portable careers in the military lifestyle. So while I agree with your statement that distance education is the future, I would add that affordable online programs should provide better support and higher standards in order to prepare military spouses for a modern and global workforce.

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