The Department of Veterans Affairs says enrollment of veterans in college has increased 16-fold and well over 500,000 veterans have traded in their uniforms for text books. With the development of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, and the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan coming to an end, colleges across the state are bound to see dramatic increases of veterans attending classes. At Missouri State University we've developed the Veteran Student Services office and Veterans Incentive Program to meet the growing demands of this unique group of students. After a 42% increase in the number of GI Bill recipients from Fall 2008 to Fall 2009 and foreseeing additional increases in enrollment after implementation of the upcoming Post 9/11 GI Bill our school realized that we needed to make some changes if we were going effectively handle with the volume of questions and processing that accompany VA Benefits. That was three years ago…and we’ve learned a LOT about ourselves, student-veterans and how to bridge the gap between warriors and their education.
I’d like to share what we’ve learned so that other professionals in higher education can gain insight from our experiences. I’ll start with a brief history of our support services for veterans.
Prior to summer 2010 we assisted veteran students with their applications, certification and questions about GI Bill by utilizing a full-time staff member whose primary responsibilities were not related to veterans. They functioned in a dual role and that worked…for a while! Then Chapter 33 (Post 9/11) GI Bill came on the scene and we quickly realized that a dedicated full-time position was necessary. We founded the Veteran Student Services (VSS) office in June 2010 as a function of our Office of the Registrar. We had a separate office entrance for VSS and the goal of this office was to assist veteran students with the application, certification and questions about their Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits (GI Bill) on a full-time base. We staffed this office with a full-time School Certifying Official (that’s me) and two VA work study students then quickly got up to speed on Chapter 33 and the all of the other benefits available to veteran students. Within a couple of months in the position, I came to realize that veterans were not just unique because of the type of federal benefit they used to pay for school…they had challenges and barriers to success that were much different than those of other students I had interacted with on-campus in the past. In order to learn more about these students and hopefully help them succeed in higher education in greater numbers, I applied for a FIPSE grant which would help me hire more staff and dedicate resources to student-veterans. In October 2010 FIPSE announced that Missouri State University was one of 15 schools in the nation to be awarded the Centers of Excellence in Veteran Student Success (CEVSS) grant. This gave us a 3-year, $387,000 opportunity to develop enhanced veteran programs at our 4-year (Springfield, MO) and 2-year (West Plains, MO) campuses. The goal of the program is to increase enrollment, persistence and graduation of student-veterans.
Out of that grant we developed what we call the Veterans Incentive Program or VIP. This program is designed to address the specific transition issues that veterans face as they leave military service and enter civilian life through educational institutions. We have certainly had some “growing pains” in developing a comprehensive veteran-friendly program and subsequently a veteran-friendly campus. When we first launched the program we knew very little about out student-veterans. The only interaction with veterans that we had was the few times a year our VA education benefit recipients had questions about their benefits. The only “tracking system" we had to gauge success of those students was a simple spreadsheet on a shared drive that listed the students who received education benefits and the type of benefit they were using. We immediately sought to fix this by increasing our interaction with students and developing new ways to gauge success through data collection and analysis. One of the first steps we took was to create a veteran “lounge” where students could interact with each other and have a safe place, among fellow warriors, where they could take a break from the daily grind of school, work and family to relax. We also hired a full-time VIP Coordinator who could devote time to discovering the challenges/needs of our student-veterans and then develop specific support systems to face those demands.
We definitely felt overwhelmed at first; we were not sure what direction to start with since we didn’t really know much about our student-veterans yet. Our first attempt at VIP was a membership driven, closely monitored, mentorship program where students would elect to become “VIP” and in exchange, they would receive extensive follow-up and assistance. We thought that GPA was a good measure of success and so we instituted a GPA requirement that asked students to maintain a specific GPA once entering the program. If at any point during their membership in VIP they fell below that GPA we would intervene with one-on-one advising and required meetings with the Coordinator. We also felt that financial, family and emotional assistance were important factors for success and had built-in mechanisms to watch for red flags in any of those categories (steps included required tasks to correct issues before they became major concerns). After about 6-months of that model, it became clear to us that this was not what our students needed or wanted! While beginning to implement our plan, we were concurrently gathering data about our student-veterans. We realized the following: we had a lot more student-veterans on-campus than we even realized, many were not receiving VA benefits, and only a small handful were signing up for our VIP program. Not only that, very few veterans were using the Lounge we had created. We wanted to know why this was happening so we talked to our students and began listening to what they had to say! We made some fundamental changes in our program, including a different leadership model, and re-structured VIP…the result has been phenomenal and we’ve accomplished more in the past few months than I ever expected possible! We now have 3 full-time and 4 part-time employees who work only in Veteran Student Services. Our lounge is more popular than it’s ever been before with an average of 10 students per day.
Top 10 Ways to Support Veterans On-Campus
- Ask: The best advice I can give is talk to your student-veterans. Reach out to the student-veterans you have on-campus and let them tell you what they need or want.
- Listen: If your students are talking to you…do something with that information! Share your insights with others on-campus and start to build ways to fulfill the needs of your students.
- Dedicate: I believe every campus today should have at a bare minimum a full-time VA school certifying official. Staff who are dedicated to veterans show a level of commitment from the school that earns loyalty from student-veterans.
- Invest: The old adage “you’ve got to give some to gain some” is very true when it comes to student-veterans. You have to invest resources specifically to student-veterans in order to gain new students and keep the ones you have.
- Support: The most important element that makes our program work on-campus is the support we get from higher administration. They want our office and our students to be successful. Building trust relationships with decision makers on-campus and having those folks support our efforts has made all the difference in our success.
- Provide: One of the key components of our support structure at Missouri State is our veteran lounge and the staff we have in the office. Once you know what your veterans need and you have the staff/resources to begin meeting those needs you have to let veterans know you’re there and you care. Providing them opportunities to engage and develop relationships is vital step to success.
- Collaborate: Develop a group of folks on your campus who have the desire to support veterans and the power to make things happen on-campus and get this group together to discuss what you can do to support veteran students. Utilize the resources that are already established on-campus.
- Community: This is a two-fold concept. Not only do we strive to create a community for student-veterans on-campus but we want to engage with the community that surrounds them. We have received amazing donations from the surrounding community. All of the furniture in the lounge was donated by local businesses. We have a local coffee house donating coffee whenever we need it and we have members of the community on an advisory board we’ve developed. Partner with folks in your community to support your efforts.
- Be Real: Veterans appreciate authenticity. They don’t want to hear “everything is wonderful and great” if that’s not reality. Develop programs/services that are of real value to student-veterans.
- Sustain: Whatever program you develop or policies you implement be sure that you can sustain those efforts over the long haul. This is where campus and community support become vital. Our grant will exhaust next year…everything we’re doing now we’re doing with sustainability in mind. It will be important to support veterans for many years to come. Even when the wars are over…we will still have warriors trading in their boots for books.
For information on how to help Veterans on your campuses, use the provided resources:
American Council on Education (ACE) Veteran Friendly Toolkit: http://vetfriendlytoolkit.org/
National Center for PTSD: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/index.asp
Association of Veterans Education Certifying Officials (AVEC)
National Association of Veterans Program Administrators (NAVPA)