Colleges volunteer financial aid for returning soldiers

When the University of Illinois announced last month it would offer 110 full MBA scholarships to military veterans, worth $74,000 each, the news flew across the state's National Guard e-mail network.

That same night, 1st Sgt. Michael Purvis e-mailed the program's director. Within days, he learned he'd be joining the school's executive MBA program in Chicago this fall.

For Sergeant Purvis, who had just returned to his job as a systems analyst for a communication firm after a year's deployment in Iraq with an Army National Guard unit, the news offered a ray of hope. Leaving the hyper-alert mode of combat duty and returning to a job where he felt he had to relearn everything has been difficult, he says. "But then to have an opportunity like this - with somebody offering to help out - it really brightens your future quite a bit."

The university - which is partnering with the Illinois Veteran Grant Program to give the scholarships - has one of the more generous programs out there. But in ways large and small, a number of institutions are offering a host of opportunities for the largest combat force returning to the US since Vietnam War days.

Proponents of such programs say there's a pressing need not just to thank members of the military for the service they've given their country, but also to offer education, training, or jobs to a group whose transition to civilian life can be challenging.

"You've got a flood of people who have served the country coming back - that doesn't happen all that often," says Robert van der Hooning, assistant dean of the University of Illinois's College of Business. "There are a lot of military people who have had their careers interrupted from Tour 1, Tour 2, Tour 3. A lot view this opportunity as a way to put the burners onto their career, to focus on earning back some of income they lost all those years serving their country or the promotions they lost."

The country already provides substantial help to veterans and service members through the Montgomery GI Bill, through which an active-duty member of the military can get about $1,000 a month toward 36 months of education. Similar benefits are available to reservists and members of the National Guard. A transition assistance program alerts those leaving the service to the range of benefits available.

But with such a large force starting to return home, some say that's not enough. The GI bill often falls short of students' needs, with some exhausting its benefits before they're done with school.

More disturbing, statistics from the US Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs show an unemployment rate of more than 15 percent among veterans ages 20 to 24 - nearly twice that of their nonveteran peers.

International College in Florida decided to create a scholarship program for veterans when the school realized how many members of the military were choosing to attend the school because of its emphasis on applied learning - and it also realized that a number of these students had trouble with their expenses.

"What we're trying to have is an incentive scholarship to fill the gap between what the GI bill provides and what tuition is," says Lou Traina, vice president for institutional advancement. It would cover the cost of one credit, $1,600, each semester. The school has raised about $350,000 so far and hopes to reach $1 million by December.

"I remember when I came back from overseas and was starting a family and trying to go to college, and it was very, very difficult," says Peter Thomas, a World War II veteran who is on the fund's board.

Currently, at least 160 of the school's 1,800 students are veterans, says Mr. Traina. "What we're hearing from students is that the college experience and getting a degree and moving into the career they want has been a vehicle for transition to civilian life," he says.

The Horatio Alger Association, a provider of need-based scholarships, recently awarded nearly 700 $5,000 scholarships to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan trying to get a bachelor's degree. It is the first scholarship designed specifically for veterans of the current conflicts.

At the University of Illinois, meanwhile, Mr. van der Hooning came up with the idea for the scholarships after reading about the Welcome Home GI Bill that Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois had introduced. The bill, which hasn't left committee, included education benefits. "I thought, why are we waiting? Why does it have to go into a political process?" says van der Hooning.

He worked with Representative Emanuel and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn to craft a program that used the state's existing veteran fund and picked up the shortfall to cover remaining expenses, including books, a computer, and travel to China, where part of the academic program takes place.

The response, he says, has been overwhelming. Since last month, he's talked to some 250 vets and awarded scholarships to about 30. Another 50 are in the pipeline. Some calls have been from younger soldiers who don't qualify for the executive MBA program - designed for mid-career candidates - so van der Hooning plans to make a similar program for younger professionals available next year.

Most of the feedback has simply convinced him how much this is needed.

"The morning after we announced this, I got a call on my cellphone at home from a soldier in Iraq who had just gotten back from his nighttime run," says van der Hooning. The man said his commander had told the unit about the scholarship before they went out, and they had talked about it all night. He submitted his résumé later that night and was admitted a few days later.

"He told me we have no idea what this does to their psyche, to their sense of looking forward to coming home after the third tour," says van der Hooning.

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