Veterans Day: How colleges are easing leap from war zone to classroom
As soldiers back from Afghanistan and Iraq take advantage of the new GI bill, some colleges are more veteran-friendly than others. On Veterans Day, here's a look at efforts to smooth that transition.
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"At the end of the ceremony [last year], there was this revelation of how powerful it was," Morris says. "One of the big problems a lot of the vets have is, they come back and they now have different life experiences and they don't feel like they fit on a college campus. So doing things to recognize their service and [show] that the community of students values them is important."Skip to next paragraph
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How to choose a 'vet friendly' school?
When veterans shop for a college education, it can be difficult to tell which institutions will serve them best. Members of Congress have raised concerns that some self-proclaimed "vet friendly" schools may be trying to get vets in the door simply to take advantage of their GI Bill dollars.
The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions has cited examples of students who were drawn into schools under false pretenses and then stuck with high tuition bills or credits that wouldn't transfer. It also released a report recently showing that 8 out of 10 universities receiving the most veteran education-benefit money were for-profit institutions (which have convenient offerings, including online course work, and especially appeal to adult students with jobs). At these places, an average of 60 percent of the student population withdraws within the first year.
Representatives of the for-profit sector say they agree there should be high standards for recruiting practices, but they defend the schools overall: "While a traditional postsecondary experience is appropriate for many veteran students, others want the kind of flexible and accelerated schedules [and] career-focused programs" offered by many for-profits, read a September statement from Brian Moran, interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.
One way to identify schools that have signed on to key veteran-friendly practices is to see if they are among the 1,900 listed in the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium. Other schools may also be great choices, says consortium president Kathy Snead, and veterans should ask questions about what's important to them, whether it's the ease of transferring credits or how the college's alumni fare in the job market.
Once veterans choose a school, they have some unique transitional needs – yet there's very little research so far on how to meet them. What's out there tends to focus on mental health.
A recent survey of student veterans found that about 35 percent had severe anxiety, 45 percent had contemplated suicide at some point, and 7.7 percent had attempted suicide, according to the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. By comparison, 1.3 percent of the general college-student population has attempted suicide. The authors suggest that college staff should receive training about combat-related stresses and suicide.
Publicizing needs vs. engendering bias
Some veterans worry that publicity about PTSD and suicide may bias fellow students.
If those numbers are exaggerated, "you're really stigmatizing the veteran student population to the point where everyone will be standoffish," says David Vacchi, a veteran himself who is studying veterans in higher education as a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Someone may have to sit near the exit or a back corner" in a classroom, he says, but that should be seen as similar to accommodating people with physical disabilities.
A fear of stigmatization may be one reason some veterans don't identify themselves as such on campus. Others are just busy or so focused on their new academic mission that they don't need to connect with peers.
But for some, the support of fellow veterans is all they have when times get rough. They may have lost their marriage and kids, Jackson says, and maybe "they're struggling with their demons" from war. So "any stress or wall they come to, instead of trying to climb over it, they'll say, 'That's it. I'm done.' "
This is when people like Jackson step in, doing their best to get vets the help they need to stay on track and earn their degrees.
IN PICTURES: Serving those who have served - veterans' programs
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