How Veterans Screw Up College

Photo by Spc. Nathan Thome

College is the next step for many people leaving the military. As a transition pathway, this makes a lot of sense. Yet somehow a lot of us get lost in the process: going to the wrong school, pursuing the wrong degree, and even failing to graduate. Many veterans fumble during their transition because they view college through a narrow lens, emphasizing a simplistic view of a degree as a "check in the box." These folks miss out of other opportunities that could substantially improve their lives after service.

Millions of veterans have tried college in the Post-9/11 era, many of them with mixed results. We don't really know the extent of the problem — Student Veterans of America partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014 and did the first-ever study (which is kind of crazy if you think about it) of approximately 800,000 records.

Unfortunately, the report ended up asking more questions than it answered. They tried to put a positive spin on things, but it's hard to excited about the fact that only 51.7% of us finish a chosen course of study.

We should be confident and excited about re-entering civilian life. And somehow barely half of us stumble out of college.

These subpar results are especially troubling when you consider the uber-generous new G.I. Bill benefits. The federal government spending on veterans education benefits spiked from $1.75 billion to over $4.17 billion between the 2009-10 school year and the 2012-13 school year. Overall, the VA budget has been increasing at an annual rate of 13% since 2008. That's a lot of money in short period of time, and it doesn't seem like anyone has a clear sense of what is being accomplished with these billions of dollars.

What benefits are vets getting as a result of this tidal wave of cash and support? Are we graduating college and getting good jobs? Are our professional trajectories improving? Are we more confident? Is our quality of life higher? What about our spouses and children?

The media is full of stories painting a dark picture. We often read about veterans struggling through college, flushing away their GI Bill on a worthless degree, and otherwise failing at life thanks to an uncaring and ineffective VA.

This is the fate we all seek to avoid once we leave the service. Obviously everyone wants to do well (or at least not screw up) as a civilian, so why the disconnect? With all of our useful skills and experiences, what is leading a big chunk of us down the wrong path? What is it about school that defeats us?

Part of the answer is incentives. The veteran community is incentivized, professionally and socially, to screw up in school. Yes, college is a different experience for everyone, but many people are influenced heavily by one or more of the following perspectives on higher education:

College as a "check-in-the-box." This mentality thinks of a college degree as a requirement, nothing more. The idea is that a college degree is expected, with no regard to how it is obtained or why. In this mentality, the focus is on convenience more than anything else.

College as a skills builder. This idea is that college is an opportunity to develop new abilities. We often see this with engineering and other technical fields — sole focus on a  major that sets someone up for a specific job or graduate program.

College as an access point to a network. This mentality thinks of college as a "way in" to the people who can get them a job. People in this mindset will often pick a major based on what is popular on the campus.

College as an experience. This way of thinking focuses on college as a time to consider new ideas, meet new people, do new drugs, et cetera. In this line of thinking, people are open to anything life throws at them; their major is something that interests them.

College as a brand builder. This idea focuses on college as a name they put onto a resume once in the workforce. Under this model, a person picks a career based off of what looks the best for their prospective job or based on what the media describes as an “in-demand” career.

None of these perspectives is the right one. To be useful, all of them should be used, combined with considerations of location, cost, and culture. A veteran will make a better decision when he or she uses more perspectives to critically examine all the options. This often doesn't often happen, though, as the data reveals, thanks to some unintended consequences of education and employment policy at the federal level.

Vets exploring college are immediately forced to commit to a path, before understanding the available (not to mention desirable) options. Specifically, we are required to choose academic and professional "goals" when applying for G.I. Bill benefits. This was done to ensure people graduate on time, but it also creates obstacles to switching degree tracks. No one wants to fill out a VA 22-1995 every time they decide to make a change to their curriculum plan; that's a lot of money each month. This is especially true if the VA counselors at your school are not proficient enough to navigate the process quickly.

Sloppy thinking about college bleeds over into the labor market, too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24% of Post-9/11 veterans served in the public sector (i.e. federal, state, or local government) compared to 15% of non-veterans. Even more lopsided, 14% of those vets served the federal government, compared with 2% of non-veterans. That means younger veterans are seven times more likely than other people to work for the federal government even after leaving the military. And that doesn't even count federal contractors!

Why does this matter? Because the federal government  — the largest single employer of post-9/11 veterans  — encourages the “check-in-the-box” college mentality that distorts our behavior. It's all about "students and recent grads." They even sort federal occupations by college major.

Many news articles discussing openings in the government also focus on the degree before anything else, leaving the impression that it is most important requirement.

With lots of vets heading into the federal government, it is natural they will try to snag a degree. Over time the "gravitational pull" toward federal employment will get worse. As more and more of us work for the government, we draw in our buddies, who of course think they need to use free government money (also known as the G.I. Bill) to get the degree that will qualify them for federal jobs.

Think about it. If 14% of us work for the federal government right now, how many more have applied and not been hired? And what about the vets who are going to school to get into some federal job a few years from now? There is a huge veteran population that bases its professional decisions on an expectation of future government employment. In effect it means they (think they) need to get a degree to be competitive.

Of course that's not true. The degree requirement is misleading and ultimately destructive. There are actually conversion rates for government jobs where work experience (like an enlistment) could replace a college degree. But that's not widely known or shared, either inside or outside the government.

Whether it's coming from requirements buried in the G.I. Bill or popular post-military jobs in the government, many vets struggle to think of college as anything but a check in the box. It may not be immediately obvious now with a rebounding economy, but we need to fix the misaligned incentives in the transition process. Veterans are unemployed, underemployed, and misemployed as a result of sloppy educations that were pursued without a complete examination of the available resources.

We have to do better. Organizations like Service to School [] and the Warrior Scholar Project [] are trying to fill the student veteran knowledge gap with personalized college advice. And they're free!

If you know a veteran heading to (or already in) school, pop them a note about their goals. Challenge them to think through their choices. They'll get out what they put in.

Every once in a while, we run across a photo in The Times-Picayune archives that's so striking that it begs a simple question: "What in the name of Momus Alexander Morgus is going on in this New Orleans photograph?" When we do, we've decided, we're going to share it — and to attempt to answer that question.

Read More Show Less
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the monitor of their drone at their advanced position, during the fighting with Islamic State's fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on Islamic State, a senior U.S. general told Reuters on Friday.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump claims the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department's budget that he will now spend on his border wall was not going to be used for anything "important."

Trump announced on Friday that he was declaring a national emergency, allowing him to tap into military funding to help pay for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Read More Show Less

Long before Tony Stark took a load of shrapnel to the chest in a distant war zone, science fiction legend Robert Heinlein gave America the most visceral description of powered armor for the warfighter of the future. Forget the spines of extra-lethal weaponry, the heads-up display, and even the augmented strength of an Iron Man suit — the real genius, Heinlein wrote in Starship Troopers, "is that you don't have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin."

"Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot; it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking," explains Johnny Rico. "Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians. But a suit, you just wear."

First introduced in 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) purported to offer this capability as America's first stab at militarized powered armor. And while SOCOM initially promised a veritable Iron Man-style tactical armor by 2018, a Navy spokesman told Task & Purpose the much-hyped exoskeleton will likely never get off the launch pad.

"The prototype itself is not currently suitable for operation in a close combat environment," SOCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty told Task & Purpose, adding that JATF-TALOS has no plans for an external demonstration this year. "There is still no intent to field the TALOS Mk 5 combat suit prototype."

Read More Show Less

D-Day veteran James McCue died a hero. About 500 strangers made sure of it.

"It's beautiful," Army Sgt. Pete Rooney said of the crowd that gathered in the cold and stood on the snow Thursday during McCue's burial. "I wish it happened for every veteran's funeral."

Read More Show Less