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The Best Way to Thank Our Veterans: How to Support This Unique Adult Student Cohort

The EvoLLLution | The Best Way to Thank Our Veterans: How to Support This Unique Adult Student Cohort
Improving the student experience for veterans requires institutions to offer services and support mechanisms specifically designed to address the unique needs of this growing demographic.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects that the number of college students over the age of 25 will increase by 20 percent in the next eight years, compared with only 12 percent for younger students. A significant cohort of this non-traditional, adult student population are veterans and active members of the Armed Services. Four percent of the total American undergraduate population—approximately one million students—are veterans.

The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that military personnel returning to or beginning their college careers face a number of challenges including (but not limited to) being accepted by other students, gaining credit for previous classroom or work experience and managing residency requirements. Add to that the fact that 62 percent of all veterans attending college are first-generation students—compared to 43 percent for the overall college student population—and it is clear college campuses cannot expect veterans to succeed without investing in services to meet their specialized needs.

At Eastern Connecticut State University, we have a strong commitment to veteran students. That commitment has a historical context—30 miles to the south lies the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton, and Eastern has been providing direct educational services to military personnel on the base for decades. On our Willimantic Campus, we have more than 600 students who are self-identified as veterans, active military personnel or reservists—more than double the national average. In its 2015 rankings, U.S. News and World Report ranked Eastern as the ninth best public university in the North for serving veteran students. Such recognition is encouraging and suggests that we are on the right path in meeting the needs of veterans.

Here are a few lessons we have learned along the way:

The first step in making your campus attractive for veterans is to ensure that benefits and services mandated by law are readily available. At Eastern, that means working closely with veterans so that they have full access to their Post 9/11 GI Bill financial benefits, as well as access for spouses to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts program.

We also have a residency waiver in place for veterans so that they qualify for Connecticut’s in-state tuition rates. Although many veterans and active military personnel in our state are Connecticut residents, the submarine base in Groton, CT is home to Navy personnel from around the country. These courageous Americans have not only served their country, they are ready to raise their families in Connecticut, and many are returning to college to complete their degree. In fact, in New England, only Massachusetts has more veterans attending its colleges than Connecticut. Providing a financial incentive to out-of-state veterans is one way we can say “thank you” for the sacrifices they have made, but it is also a good investment in Connecticut’s economy. The skills, self-discipline and experiences that veterans possess are enhanced during their time on our campus, and the result is a strong infusion of talent into the state’s workforce.

Not only do veterans and the State of Connecticut benefit from offering in-state tuition rates to out-of-state veterans and active military personnel, it also benefits and enriches the campus experience for all students. Having veterans from other states attend Eastern enriches what goes on in our classrooms and throughout campus, as they bring geographic diversity and a wealth of experience gained through serving their country. I have no doubt that Eastern is a stronger institution, and the students, faculty and staff on our campus stronger and better people, by virtue of having a diverse group of veterans join us as full members of our campus community.

In addition to tuition waivers, we assist veterans in filling out Veteran Affairs forms, understanding our academic policies and dealing with other procedural issues, as well as working to ensure they are not penalized financially when veterans’ benefits are delayed.

Veterans at Eastern can also have their military training evaluated by the American Council on Education for credit equivalency, and veteran students at Eastern routinely access CLEP, DANTES, and other credit-by-exam options.

We have a Veterans Center that is staffed 40 hours a week where military veterans and active service personnel can socialize and study. Our Veterans Club is another way for veterans to support each other, and we encourage non-veteran students to join and support the club as well. Open houses at the center also serve to bring a higher profile to issues facing veteran students on campus. The center staff provides briefings and trainings on veterans’ issues to faculty, and links veteran students to local American Legion and Veterans Affairs offices and other military organizations. An extensive resource library is also available in the center for veterans, and the center connects veteran students to peer tutoring, career development, counseling, advising and other appropriate services.

To support the work of the center, a Veterans Affairs advisory group provides input and feedback to Veterans Center staff. Members include representatives from Financial Aid, Student Affairs, Admissions, the Bursars Office, Housing, Career Services, and other university units.

Each November we host a large public assembly on Veterans Day to honor all veterans and to let the veterans on our campus know how much we appreciate the sacrifices they have made for us. On that same day, we hold a fundraising event—The Veterans Day Challenge—to support a scholarship fund for veteran students. The challenge is a physical fitness competition based on the workout regimen of Medal of Honor recipient and Navy Seal Lt. Michael Murphy, who was killed in action in 2005 during a tour in Afghanistan.

This range of support services is paying off for Eastern students with military backgrounds—in the most recent reporting cycle, veteran retention increased five percent for both the fall-to-spring and fall-to-fall cohorts.

To better serve veteran students, college campuses are wise to expand services —verifying financial benefits, offering career counseling, helping them register for class and navigate campus procedures. But the most important thing we can do on our campuses to ensure the success of veteran students is to make them feel welcomed, supported and appreciated. That atmosphere of caring and respect, backed by a strong support system, will help ensure that veterans persist and graduate from our institutions to meet their career aspirations, while serving as citizen leaders in our great American democracy.

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