Student-Veterans’ Non-Cognitive Attributes Breach College-Readiness and Completion Efforts

Steven R. GonzalesSteven R. GonzalesConsidered unprepared academically, and therefore not college-ready by many higher education standards, student-veterans demonstrate a different kind of readiness in achieving student success — non-cognitive attributes. By identifying and understanding the attributes gained during enlisted military service, community colleges can be better prepared to serve this diverse student population, while addressing institutional struggles with retention and completion.

Research shows there is minimal correlation between familiar standardized testing tools and measures, such as a high school grade point average (GPA), the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), or the American College Testing (ACT) exam, and predicting the likelihood of academic success (King et al., 1994; Armstrong, 1999). Community colleges are pivotal for economic growth and upward mobility. However, many community college students never complete, echoing the disappointment of millions of students who fail to achieve their educational goals (Bailey, Jaggars, & Jenkins, 2015). Community college leaders would benefit from rethinking what college-readiness means beyond cognitive skills.

Student-veterans are a fast-growing, niche segment of the nontraditional student population who are specially equipped with non-cognitive attributes attained from enlisted military service.

Carlos GaranzuayCarlos GaranzuayIn 2020, Carlos A. Garanzuay, Ed.D., a U.S. Air Force veteran, interviewed fellow military veterans who pursued a community college education after earning status as enlisted military service members. Supported by Steven R. Gonzales, Ed.D., the research aimed to identify which non-cognitive attributes, instilled during enlisted military service, that student-veterans used to attain successful completion of their academic journeys. The research found that many student-veterans experienced a frustration and dissonance between their identities as a veteran and as a student. Participant testimonies illuminated a chasm of missed opportunities by community colleges to create a sense of belonging in higher education. The authors identified a predominant set of cultural markers, or non-cognitive attributes, that equip student-veterans with tools to belong, adapt, and succeed in higher education which include:

Predominant Non-Cognitive Attributes Commitment/Discipline

The “commitment/discipline” attribute exists in core values held by each of the military branches. Participants indicated that commitment to their mission of academic completion kept them undeterred from success. The prevalence of this attribute indicated it often carried into student-veterans’ post-military life.

Communication/Self-Advocacy

The “communication/self-advocacy” attribute was modeled militarily through effectiveness of operations, the safety of service members, and improvement strategies dependent partly upon clear communication. There was a responsibility associated with having and sharing necessary information. Asking questions, seeking new or clarifying information was standard, sometimes essential, to understanding the unfamiliar terrain of college.

Leadership/Team Building/Military Core Values

From the initial cultural assimilation process into enlisted military life, affectionately referred to as basic military training or boot camp, veterans are cultivated with a collectivist mindset, ideals of teamwork, and leadership of those teams. Despite the more individualist culture of higher education, many activities and assignments are designed specifically to have students practice this attribute.

Goal Setting and Planning

Byrd and MacDonald (2005) explained goal setting/planning as the ability of students to identify short-term and long-term goals that are key to their academic journey. Student-veteran participants stated that by setting a goal, and creating a plan for that goal, they were able to identify key components necessary to advancing through a fluid, unfamiliar environment. Reassessment of the plan occurred when they were presented with new information.

Adaptability

Rumann and Hamrick (2010) proposed that if a student-veteran could learn to adapt more quickly to the culture of higher education, managing the transition process would be less overwhelming. Almost all participants mentioned consciously adapting their behaviors to provide an advantage. That adaptability applied to a variety of contexts, such as expectations, behaviors, or interpersonal communication.   

Dr. Carlos A. Garanzuay serves as manager, institutional effectiveness and assessment, Del Mar College (Tex.). Dr. Steven R. Gonzales serves as interim chancellor for the Maricopa County Community College District (Ariz.).

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.