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Military Veterans Face Challenge of Going from Combat to Campus

The new GI Bill benefits will allow many veterans to enroll in college, but making the transition from military life to civilian life to academic life often is difficult.The new GI Bill benefits will allow many veterans to enroll in college, but making the transition from military life to civilian life to academic life often is difficult.

Michael Dakduk served in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2008, and had tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He used his GI Bill benefits to complete his education, graduating with a B.A. in public policy and administration from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Initially, the transition [to college] was difficult,” said Dakduk. “I had been removed from an academic setting for several years and had multiple combat deployments. This made for some long nights of studying and remedial courses to get back up to speed in writing and mathematics. Beyond the academics, integrating into a college environment was vastly different than being in a wartime military.”

Now, he is executive director of the Student Veterans of America, an organization in Washington, D.C. that “provides military veterans with the resources, support and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education.”

He was able to use both the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides up to 36 months financial support for education and housing to honorably discharged veterans who have served 90 days after Sept. 10, 2001, or those discharged with a service-related disability, and the Montgomery GI Bill, which offers education benefits for servicemen and women who were enlisted in the armed forces and had active duty after June 1985.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA has paid more than $23.6 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to more than 860,000 veterans, service members and dependents since mid-2009. The VA received more than 470,000 fall 2012 enrollments for Post-9/11 GI Bill use, which was a 12 percent increase in Post-9/11 GI Bill program use, compared to October 2011. In fiscal year 2012, Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries were enrolled in 3,630 institutions.

The Veterans Educational Assistance Act, more commonly known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, became law in 2008. It covers graduate and undergraduate degree programs, vocational/technical training, on-the-job training, flight training, correspondence training, licensing programs and national testing programs, as well as entrepreneurship training.

Over the next five years, the student veteran demographic will nearly double, according to SVA.

“Around one million troops will be transitioning into civilian life,” said Dakduk. “And as these men and women transition into civilian life, with the help of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the number of student veterans on college campuses will surely increase.”

Since the first GI Bill was adopted in 1944 to give soldiers returning from WWII the opportunity for a better future, the U.S. government has offered financial support to veterans’ endeavors of higher education. After the last of the American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, many of those servicemembers, like thousands of military men and women before them, traded their duty gear for textbooks and enrolled in college.

In the 1940s and 1950s, as a result of veterans who attended colleges, the country gained hundreds of thousands of “additional engineers, teachers, health professionals and scientists, not to mention how transforming soldiers into civically engaged citizens contributed in large ways to the leadership of the nation,” researchers Kimberly Griffin and Claire Gilbert wrote in their study, Easing the Transition from Combat to Classroom: Preserving America’s Investment in Higher Education for Military Veterans Through Institutional Assessment, for the Center for American Progress.

“This latest GI Bill has the potential to have as significant an impact on higher education, the U.S. workforce, and national competitiveness as its 1944 predecessor,” they added.

Many men and women who serve in the armed forces are not looking to make a career in the military, and they recognize the value of the GI Bill as a tool to help them reach their career goals. Some are able to continue the education they had interrupted when they enlisted in the military; others are enrolling in college for the first time.

In the 2007–2008 school year, some 85 percent of military undergraduates were aged 24 or older, and during that same period, military undergraduates were more likely to be non-White than veterans in general and traditional undergraduates, and more likely to be female, according to the report, Military Service Members and Veterans in Higher Education: What the New GI Bill May Mean for Postsecondary Institutions, published in 2009 by the American Council on Education and written by Alexandria Walton Radford, of MPR Associates.

“Women represented 27 percent of all military undergraduates in 2007–08, although they made up just 7 percent of all U.S. veterans in 2006,” the report said.

Jason Thigpen, founder and president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, said, “Veterans are what diversity represents. Vets are African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic and Asian; they are men and women, and members are LGBT. So if we do the right thing for student vets, we’re doing the right thing for diversity.”

Dakduk believes veterans also have strengths that can benefit colleges and universities.

“They are able to enrich student life because of the world experiences they have had,” said Dakduk. “Some student vets have been on the ‘ground’ and they have communicated with foreign people to understand their plights and their situations. They also tend to have a better, more holistic appreciation for world affairs and world culture.”

A rough road

In general, many veterans do not attend college in the same way as a “traditional” college student who goes directly from high school into a full-time program for four or more years and then graduates.

“Many student vets are typically already working, have families and are more likely to pursue their academic goals differently or have breaks in their academic pursuit and still come back to finish at a later date,” said Randal Noller in the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the VA. “Veterans may start pursuing an academic program for reasons other than to get a degree. They may just need classes or a license/certificate to help them get promoted in their current jobs, or have other goals for using their benefits.”

Student vets often have the added burden of VA red tape and paperwork, difficulties in obtaining financial aid, uneasiness brushing up on academic skills, family obligations, a sense of alienation among classmates and a sense of withdrawal. Some may even have to deal with brain injuries, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The alienation felt by many student veterans due to such publicity regarding the traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder thousands have been diagnosed with has only added further distance between veterans and their successful reintegration,” said Thigpen.

“Let’s keep in mind that there is a big difference with the 10-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan contrary to past wars,” he added. “And that is that our servicemembers have survived at a higher rate than prior wars. Of course, that’s a blessing, but it also precipitates a much greater need for preparation and care at home our nation wasn’t ready for.”

His group was established in 2008 with the mission to serve, assist and advocate for veterans and their dependents and to ensure that vets are able to access the adequate benefits owed them.

The Center for American Progress’ report said many of the veterans who enroll in college would not earn degrees because of the challenges that make their transition from military life to civilian life to academic life a difficult one.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs currently does not have information on the total number of students who have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill and have graduated from a program of education, but it began collecting veteran outcome data, including graduations, from schools during the fall 2011 semester.

Noller said his group is working with the Department of Education and experts in higher education and private contractors to determine the best outcome measures for programs. “We continue to encourage schools to enhance their reporting so that we may better serve our beneficiaries,” he noted in a follow-up email.

Dakduk said the SVA is also working on maintaining better documentation about veteran graduation rates. “It’s important that we get some idea of the return on the investment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” he said.

Although many veterans will enroll in four-year colleges, Dakduk believes a great number of the new students will attend community colleges and two-year institutions before going on to a four-year program. According to the report by the Center for American Progress, during the 2009–2010 school year, approximately 23 percent of Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients attended for-profit institutions, which are managed by private corporations and organizations

The for-profit sector advertises heavily to veterans, and many have come under fire for forceful recruitment tactics. In April 2012, President Obama, while visiting with 3rd Infantry Division soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga., signed an executive order that helps to safeguard education benefits to military members and that would require colleges to provide clear information about qualifications and financial aid.

“We’re going to bring an end to the aggressive — and sometimes dishonest — recruiting that takes place,” said the president.

That’s a great step forward, veterans’ advocates say. However, several people strongly believe that the education institutions must take a more active role. Dakduk believes colleges and universities should conduct a survey to assess veterans’ needs.

“The vast majority of colleges and universities declare their steadfast support of being ‘military friendly,’ but making such a claim requires far more than rhetoric to be true,” Thigpen said.

Cutting the red tape

As bighearted as the education assistance from the government may be, oftentimes simply getting GI benefits can take longer than expected.

“Student veterans have reported waiting weeks and sometimes months to receive their benefits,” Dakduk said.

While the Post-9/11 GI Bill is an extremely generous benefit, he said, it is highly complex. Much of the paperwork is still processed manually, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking steps to automate claims processing.

Individual institutions also need to look at their policies to help student vets navigate registration and enrollment to make their transition easier, Dakduk said.

“I highly suggest university leaders visit the American Council on Education’s Veteran Friendly Toolkit ( to find best practices on programs, policies and resources dedicated to supporting student veterans,” he said. “Beyond that, engage the student veterans on campus and find out what they need.”

Thigpen points out that student veterans also deal with changes to residency tuition guidelines that have also become a determining factor as to whether they will attend and finish college. Prior to a change in the Federal law with the GI Bill, the GI Bill would pay for the veteran’s education regardless of in-state or out-of-state residency to whatever college they chose, public or private. The change to the GI Bill, which took place in 2011, limits payments to the maximum in-state tuition rate at a public college or up to $17, 500 per academic year to a private college.

Thigpen, referring to the change in a report he coauthored, The Lack of Support for Our Student Veterans Is Shameful, said that for the first time since the inception of the GI Bill, nearly 250,000 veterans nationwide are being saddled with the financial burdens of paying out-of-pocket.

The VA does not have authority over how schools determine in-state versus out-of-state tuition costs. In an official response, the VA states: “Most public institutions of higher education charge higher tuition to non-residents than to residents. If a student vet attends an institution where the nonresident tuition is higher than the highest resident tuition at a public institution, the school may voluntarily enter into the VA’s Yellow Ribbon program for nonresidents. It requires the school to provide a tuition waiver that the VA will match. However, participation in the program is voluntary on the part of each school.”

Thigpen wrote in his report: “In a sense, our active service members and current student veterans … by and large, had no idea their state of residency for tuition purposes would invariably be the determining factor as to whether they could afford, much less attain, the educational benefits promised to them for the sacrifices they made to protect our nation.”

The Auburn Student Veterans Association (ASVA), which represents the student veteran population at Auburn University in Alabama is “working toward granting in-state tuition for all armed forces veterans, no matter their original state residency status,” said Dan McClain, president of the ASVA, a chapter of the Student Veterans of America. McClain recommends that colleges show support to veterans by encouraging the establishment of an SVA chapter and providing space on campus for veterans to call their own. “Veterans can tell when their universities are sincere about supporting them versus just trying to appease/quiet them to maintain the title of ‘veteran-friendly campus,’” he said. “Auburn has done a good job with showing their sincere support of its armed services veteran students. As a result, I believe the university will attract more veterans and will benefit from it.”

McClain believes that overall, the veterans are doing an exceptional job at transitioning into academic and civilian life.

“In the military, we are taught to adapt to our environment and overcome the challenges it presents,” he said. “College is no different.”

Clarence V. Reynolds is an independent journalist in New York City. He is the assistant director at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.

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