Why don't student veterans apply to top tier colleges? They should.

Kaylah Jackson
November 20, 2018 - 10:29 am

Photo courtesy of Kaylah Jackson

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Take a glance at most military education offices and you’ll see posters advertising classes at online universities or for-profit colleges. What you don’t see are opportunities encouraging service members to apply to more select institutions like Cornell or Syracuse University.

CollegeBoard, a household name in connecting students to education, along with New York-based research firm Ithaka S+R, held a panel discussion Wednesday featuring student veterans, university administrators, and non-profit leaders to discuss the barriers service members face when applying to and graduating from college.

Many of those barriers are created while the service member is still on duty. The U.S. military’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP) tends to focus more on VA disability or housing benefits and leave higher education to the responsibility of the already overwhelmed veteran. 

Mike Shultz, who retired from the Coast Guard and currently studies history at the University of Pennsylvania says much of his transition advice was simply about getting a job: “You’re worker bees. You're gonna get out, and work and retire.” This advice, common among senior leaders totally leaves out the idea of working towards a Bachelors or post-secondary degree.

While student veterans hold an average 3.34-grade point average (GPA) versus 2.94 of average traditional students, the road to increasing student veteran awareness, enrollment and graduation is still long. The military can play a part in better harnessing the strength of student veterans but institutions play a part too. And they can start with changing the mindset of veterans by introducing them to their institutions before they even step foot off a military base.

“We all feel like we’re a world away from everything. These veterans will apply to better schools if you give them the option,” said Vincent Garcia, Army veteran and a graduate of Rutgers Law school.

Designating application space to describe gaps in education for deployment and including veterans within the transfer community of students are some ways organizations such as CollegeBoard and the CommonApp are creating avenues to better integrate the student veteran experience on college applications.

Read Also: Transfer application keeps veterans in mind for college admissions

Once the student veterans get on campus, the work on behalf of colleges and universities still isn’t done. Similar to making more inclusive spaces for first-generation or minority students, school administrators can utilize their resources to better support student veteran needs.

“When you tell them (students) that you have served in the military and you’re not a traditional student but I think once they find out that you are a veteran, I think that interaction is very positive,” said Piragash Swargaloganathan, a U.S. Navy veteran and current student at Cornell University. “I think anybody from a low income or non-traditional student spaces like these top-tier institutions are not an easy place to feel a part of...there is a cultural code that we have to learn in the first couple of semesters.”

On the part of colleges and universities, acknowledging this change in a veterans’ life and having support in place makes the possibility of the student veteran population succeeding that much higher.

“If you come with a wife and child or husband and child, or partner and child, you're looking at ‘how long am I looking at a peanut butter or ramen diet before we make the next move?’” said Antonio Farias, U.S. Army veteran and chief diversity officer at the University of Florida.

According to a brief created by Veterans Education Success, 30 percent of undergraduate student veterans are first-generation students, 48 percent of undergraduates are ages 25 to 34, and 17 percent of undergraduates are single but have dependents.

Accommodations including campus child care, accepting transfer credits, or making veterans affairs liaisons readily available to student veterans are resources that should be woven within the fabric of institutions if administrations want student veterans to succeed.

Service members already have the discipline, training and attitude to put forth the effort to succeed in their studies. As a student veteran, Vincent Garcia said all you have to do is “show them that they can.”

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