Today, the largest influx of veterans since WWII is lining up rank and file at colleges and universities across the United States. Recent research using national-level data on post-9/11 student veterans depicts the experiences of these students in higher education. These studies examined student veterans’ income backgrounds, financial aid characteristics, and factors related to their college transitions as a means to frame opportunities and challenges to support their success in higher education. In turn, higher education leaders can use these studies to discuss and identify key next steps to situate these students for success on their campuses.
Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Molina and Morse (2015) examined income and financial aid characteristics among first-year undergraduate student veterans by race/ethnicity and gender. In their presentation entitled Post-9/11 Student Veterans: An Exploratory Examination of Racial/Ethnic and Gender Differences Using National-Level Data, given at the 2015 NASPA Veterans Conference, the researchers demonstrated the need to address financial issues that many student veterans encounter during college. Molina and Morse found, for example, that the adjusted gross income (AGI) of Latina student veterans averaged approximately $17,000 per year, and although 96 percent of these students applied for federal financial aid, roughly three in four had unmet financial need averaging in excess of $7,000 after all aid, including VA/DoD benefits, were disbursed. In contrast to the relatively high proportion of Latina student veterans who applied for federal aid, it is worth noting that approximately one in four female and one in three male student veterans did not apply for federal aid.
These findings reflect a key theme of Molina and Morse’s research – many student veterans encounter financial challenges in pursuit of a degree, and their incomes are often insufficient to cover remaining expenses. Further, the proportion of students who did not apply for federal aid raised important questions about whether these students had appropriate access to information on key sources of financial support. Molina and Morse’s research suggested that, for some, elevated access to information about available financial resources might offer some help to cover unmet expenses. For others, however, Molina and Morse highlighted that insufficient financial aid – after accounting for all sources – persists as a heavy burden in pursuit of a postsecondary credential.
The Transition Process
Morse (2015) examined National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study to bring focus to the student veteran experience on key factors associated with transitioning to and succeeding in higher education. Morse’s analysis demonstrated that veterans who attend college are less likely than non-veterans to have taken college preparatory mathematics during high school – important because math preparation is a significant factor associated with college success. During college, Morse also noted that 43 percent of student veterans report never meeting with an academic advisor and 44 percent report never meeting with faculty outside of class – supportive connections that are tied to a successful college experience. Six years after entry, the BPS data show, nearly four in 10 student veterans have left higher education without a degree and have not returned. What these data suggest is that our higher education leaders should examine possible next steps to support student veterans through the resources, programs, and services on their campuses. Below are some recommendations that may be useful to identify next steps to support student veteran success.
Strengthen Access to and Proficiency with Information: Identifying ways to increase access to and proficiency with the information that student veterans have about their VA/DoD benefits and their eligibility for other forms of financial aid can be a helpful step to support student veteran success. Examining whether an institution’s student veterans are applying for all forms of aid that are available to them can serve as a good starting point to determine next steps for supporting access and proficiency with this information. Making sure that plenty of institutional staff are knowledgeable about the educational benefits that student veterans receive as a result of their service is also important.
Build Cultural Competence on Student Veterans among Professionals: Build this competence among practitioners and faculty through training and professional development. One key starting point is to challenge deficit views of student veterans where they may exist on campus. For example, a recent article written by David Vacchi, Chair of the NASPA Veterans Knowledge Community, addresses some of the misconceptions some may hold about college-bound student veterans. Taking time to cultivate a better understanding of the strengths and qualities many student veterans bring to campus will, in turn, lead to a more supportive environment for these students.
Establish veteran-specific resources and spaces on campus: Some institutions call them one-stop shops. Other institutions refer to them as student veterans’ resource centers, veterans’ academic resource centers, or student veterans’ centers. Although what works at every campus may look different, the goal of these spaces is to help student veterans receive support and information to address financial, social, and academic needs in one place. Ensuring that staff are trained to provide this information to student veterans, or can effectively offer referrals to other appropriate academic and student support services on campus, can help these students transition and succeed. And if you are looking for a resource-efficient place to start, consider establishing a common physical space on campus where student veterans can meet to build on their social connections and support on campus
In addition to the above recommendations, you may also consider the following resources to be helpful in learning more about student veterans in higher education.
As practitioners, we serve as critically important agents to the experiences – and ultimate success – of student veterans in higher education. In doing so, we are serving those who have served us.