Author's note: In a week fraught with national disasters and major policy announcements impacting our campuses, taking a moment to pause and reflect on one of the brighter spots in our recent legislative history might seem out of touch. We wish to assure our readers that our vigilance on behalf of both undocumented immigrants and their families and survivors of sexual assault remain constant and we are continuing to plan and advocate for the safety and security of all our students, staff, and faculty. The atmosphere in Washington this week has been tumultuous, but for those of us who look for them, there are signs that Congressional Republicans are moving past their "go-it-alone" approach from the first half of the year. Bipartisan support for the DREAM Act, coupled with swift movement to secure disaster relief funds for those impacted by hurricane Harvey and Congressional support for education in the FY2018 appropriations process are all hopeful signs that our national leaders are ready, finally, to take seriously the business of governing our nation for the good of all who call it home. We hope that recognizing one of this summer's earlier victories for both higher education and those who have lead and served our country at this possible inflection point will provide a momentary respite in a week full of disaster, anxiety, and uncertainty. /tlh
As classes start at institutions around the country, excitement and anticipation undoubtedly abound. United States veterans and military-connected students may find extra reasons to look forward to their futures following the summer passage of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, also known as the "Forever GI Bill". Named for the original architect of the first GI Bill in honor of his legacy in creating educational opportunities for those who have served their country, the Colmery GI Bill removes the 15-year time limit for veterans to use their educational benefits, restores benefits to veterans who attended schools that closed unexpectedly, and codifies the Veterans Success on Campus (VSOC) program, which provides a counselor at 94 schools who participate in the program to assist veterans with their transition from military to college life as well as who provide the support and assistance needed to pursue their educational and employment goals. Additionally, gaps in benefits that effect reservists, such as those who were injured while activated but had not meet the full requirement for active duty time to qualify for full educational benefits, or who lost benefits with the Reserve Educational Assistant Program (REAP) was repealed in 2015, are corrected in the Colmery GI Bill.
In addition to direct support for veterans and military connected students, the Colmery GI Bill also makes improvements that will benefit campus veterans service administrators, such as VA-provided training for school certifying officials, the ability for institutions to view remaining benefit amounts for each veteran in attendance to better aid in ensuring continuing support for veterans, and making provisions to allow an institution to certify benefits even when a course does not start on the first day of an academic term.
According to I am a Post-9/11 Student Veteran from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, nearly 3 million post-9/11 veterans have entered higher education following their service. While US veterans are not the only student veterans on our campuses, even adding international students with military experiences to their numbers, the percentage of college students with military experience is likely less than 5% nationally, but they bring a wealth of leadership and experience to our college campuses. Providing support for our veteran and military-connected students both financially, as the Colmery GI Bill does, and by offering programs and services tailored to their needs, allows these students to contribute their cross-cultural experience, leadership, and work-ethic to both their personal advancement and campus groups and initiatives.
Despite popular belief that veteran students require greater mental health support than non-veteran students, evidence suggests that demand for mental health services are similar among the two populations. Veterans also serve as exemplars of our changing student bodies, being more likely to be first-generation students, older, and working full- or part-time to support a family while in school. As our campuses work to advocate for increased attention to the need for resources to support working adults returning to advance their education, veterans can be powerful advocates for changes that will benefit all students.
It’s time to use support services as a catalyst for success and better recognize the untapped potential military-connected students represent for our campuses. The Colmery GI Bill will help ensure access to higher education for future US veterans and it signals a bright future for these future leaders.