What Makes A College Veteran Friendly?

U.S. Army photo

Members of the military transitioning back to civilian life face a bewildering array of colleges at which to use their hard-earned G.I. Bill benefits. Many claim to be “veteran friendly,” but are they?

Numerous organizations publish annual lists ranking the most military-friendly schools. Military Times publishes the best-known list, but it is also one of the most dubious. In 2015 Best for Vets rankings, 6 out of the top 10 ranked schools had a less than 50% average graduation rate.

So what truly makes a college veteran friendly, and what can other colleges do to improve? Here are some clues to look for when seeking out a veteran-friendly school.

Colleges that genuinely value diversity will make an active, sustained effort to attract veterans, because they recognize the value of their presence in the classroom.

In 2011, Princeton University came under fire for having only three veterans enrolled out of more than 5,000 undergraduates, despite the fact that veterans make up 1 out of every 30 undergraduate students nationwide. In response, Shirley Tilghman, the president of the university, said that they “do not discourage veterans from applying to Princeton.” A university spokesman added that Princeton has “no prohibition against veterans, and we encourage and consider their applications like all others.” However, a lack of active discrimination is very different from going out on the streets to recruit veterans.

At the same time, colleges often go to great lengths to attract applications from students who are members of an underserved minority, come from a low-income background, or are the first generation in their family to go to college. Schools do this because they recognize that having a diverse body of students makes for a better educational experience for all. These students are less likely to know what options are available to them, and therefore disproportionately less likely to apply on their own if the college does not make an effort to reach out to them.

Veterans also face challenges during a confusing and discouraging transition, and are similar to students who grew up in poverty in that they often underestimate their academic abilities. Yet veterans bring with them a unique perspective and set of experiences, as well as the determination to succeed. Colleges should want them in their classrooms.

Marketing a particular college to veterans can be difficult, however. For traditional applicants, a college can simply buy a list of high school juniors who had taken the SAT or ACT tests, allowing them to advertise directly to those students. No such lists of transitioning service members exist, and since veterans vary in age and other demographics, it can be hard for colleges to figure out who and where they are. Recruiting veterans requires investing resources, both money and personnel, and not every college has shown willingness to do so, or they may feel that the cost is prohibitive.

There are solutions, however. The easiest and cheapest way to recruit veterans is to find them before they are veterans in the first place; while they are still on active duty. Military bases maintain an education office, and conduct transition assistance workshops for servicemen and women preparing to reenter civilian life. Too often this space is dominated by predatory for-profit colleges. Colleges should make an active effort to reach out to transitioning military personnel, participate in education fairs on military bases, and advertise in military publications.

Additionally, there are a number of organizations that work to match qualified veterans with colleges where they will succeed. The Marine Corps’ excellent Leadership Scholar Program has helped match hundreds of veterans with excellent schools, and the rapidly growing nonprofit Service to School is working to do the same thing. An organization called the Posse Foundation forms groups of 10 veterans who all are admitted to the same college at once, and form a ready-made squad of peers who can support each other throughout their college experience and succeed as a team. Another organization, the Warrior Scholar Project, provides veterans with an academic skills boot camp hosted at some of the country’s most prestigious universities, and can be used by schools to help identify well-prepared and motivated veterans to recruit. Colleges should partner with these organizations as a tried and tested method of identifying high-performing veteran applicants, the same way they partner with organizations like Questbridge to recruit low-income students.

Colleges’ admissions process must be flexible enough to adapt to veteran applications.

The online common application has made it easier than ever for students to apply to more and more colleges simultaneously, especially by applying to many highly selective colleges in an attempt to maximize the chance of being accepted to one of them. At the same time, colleges are working to drive up the number of students applying each year, regardless of whether those students are qualified or not, in order to drive their acceptance rate ever downward.

A side effect of this has been that college admissions offices spend a very small amount of time processing and reviewing each individual application. This particularly hurts veterans.

When I transitioned out of the Marine Corps in 2013, I encountered many challenges while applying to colleges because the inflexible application system was simply not designed for nontraditional applicants like me. One university repeatedly sent me automated emails informing me that my application was incomplete because I had not submitted my senior-year grades. Traditional high school applicants submit their partial high school transcript up through their junior year, and then follow-up with an update containing their grades from their senior year of high school. This college’s admissions process was designed to expect that two-part submission. I emailed and called the admissions office to explain that they did, in fact, have my senior year grades because they were on my transcript, my full transcript, since I had graduated years before. My calls and emails were ignored or misunderstood, and in the end my application was rejected due to being “incomplete.”

Another university absolutely required that one of my letters of recommendation be submitted by my high school guidance counselor. This was unfortunate for me, because my guidance counselor had long since retired and moved to Florida, and no one knew how to get in contact with her. Even if they had, we had met only once, more than seven years before, and it was unlikely she would remember me at all. I asked if I could substitute another letter, offering letters of recommendation from my commanding officer, my senior enlisted supervisor, as well as a U.S. ambassador. The college was adamant; rules were rules. Only a letter from a high school guidance counselor would be accepted, and without it, my application would be thrown out without being reviewed. In the end, I was forced to go to my old high school, meet the current guidance counselor working there for the first time, and have her write a letter for me based on her impressions of me from our lunchtime conversation. Administrative red tape like this is unacceptable if a college wishes to call itself veteran friendly. Attempting to cram veterans into the same box as traditional students only drives them away.

Veterans who persist in the face of an inflexible admissions process often face rejection without getting a fair shake. Applications designed for 17-year-old high school students fail to capture the many qualifications of a transitioning veteran. Some veterans underperformed in high school, and their high school transcripts may not necessarily reflect their abilities or level of motivation years later. Serving in the military changes people dramatically, instilling many qualities that translate directly to success in other environments. Learning leadership, self-discipline, and attention to detail makes a veteran far more prepared for college than their high school GPA may indicate. Colleges should take into consideration the growth and change a veteran applicant has experienced, and weigh recent accomplishments such as good grades while taking off-duty education more heavily than high school grades from years before. Who you are at age 26 should not be defined by who you were at age 16.

Additionally, military service should not be treated as an extracurricular activity. Leading patrols as an infantry squad leader is not the same as being a counselor at a summer camp, and working as a technician on a multimillion dollar jet aircraft is not comparable to working a part-time job at McDonalds. Many military jobs are highly intellectually rigorous, and require extensive technical training in an intense academic environment. Stakes are higher than merely failing an exam; lives depend on the accomplishment of the mission. There is a reason the American Council on Education recommends that schools grant transfer college credit for many military courses and occupations. Regardless of whether they choose to grant transfer credit for military service or not, colleges should take accomplishments in the military as real indicators of potential in the classroom.

Colleges should also give veterans the space in their applications to tell their full story. It is impossible to cram years of growth into a short essay prompt asking what you did over your summer vacation or “what does #YOLO mean to you?” Optional essay supplements with large word counts give veterans additional opportunity to communicate the information that will let admissions officers put their application in context. Columbia University’s School of General Studies is the gold standard for nontraditional applicants, with half of their application consisting of an essay of up to 2,000 words with a broad personal narrative prompt. Other colleges offer specialized application pipelines for nontraditional students such as veterans, including Yale University’s Eli Whitney Students ProgramBrown University’s Resumed Undergraduate Education program, and Tufts University’s Resumed Education for Adult Learning program. This year, the University of Texas announced it would begin accepting veterans through an automatic admissions program for top academic performers. Colleges should do more to create programs like these, market them to veterans, and expand them to admit veterans in significant numbers, rather than just a token handful.

Colleges must be responsive to the unique needs of their student-veteran population.

Every college is different, and the needs of veterans at an urban community college will be vastly different from the needs of veterans at a rural liberal arts college. The challenges facing a group of only 10 veterans will be different than those faced by a community of 400 veterans. Whether it is building a veterans lounge as a designated space for the veterans to gather, study, and socialize, bringing Department of Veterans Affairs resources directly to campus, or providing exemption from standard residential housing policies since veterans are older and may have families, the best thing a college can do is solicit feedback from the students they have, and take that feedback to heart.

In general, a few best practices that colleges can implement are below:

  • Ensure tuition is fully covered by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, and commit to meeting any shortfalls through institutional aid in a predictable manner that adult, financially independent students with families and budgets can rely on when deciding whether to apply.
  • Assign staff to specialize in veteran financial aid, and provide them with training on the G.I. Bill, Yellow Ribbon Program, and scholarships available to veterans. Do not make this a mere collateral duty, and do not expect student volunteers to provide services to their fellow veterans that the administration normally provides to traditional students.
  • Train the office of disability services in how to better serve wounded veterans, particularly students living with post-traumatic stress, and proactively engage with faculty on this issue.

A college cannot be veteran friendly if it is not a good college.

It doesn’t matter how “friendly” a college is to veterans if those veterans walk away with a useless degree, receive a poor-quality education, or fail to graduate altogether. Many for-profit colleges go out of their way to aggressively recruit and admit veterans in large numbers. They often attract veterans with the promise of large amounts of transfer credit for military experience. Last summer, the Center of Investigative Reporting revealed that a single campus of the University of Phoenix located in San Diego took in more G.I. Bill money than the entire University of California system combined, despite a graduation rate of only 10%.

Veterans should beware of colleges calling themselves veteran friendly and offering extensive transfer credit to fast-track a “check-in-the-box” degree. Colleges should also resist pressures to offer ever more college credit for military experience when it does not clearly parallel the actual academic curriculum. The most important thing a college can do to be veteran friendly is to provide veterans with a quality education.

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