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Military Members, Vets Experience Higher Ed Obstacles

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephanie Dolamore
November 24, 2015

In the U.S. knowledge-based economy, a higher education credential continues to be a critical stepping stone for individuals’ and families’ economic success. Despite record increases in student enrollments during the last 40 years, this pathway continues to be more easily accessible for certain populations. For service members and veterans, accessing higher education is not always a smooth path, even though the federal government is providing exceptional fiscal resources.

soldier-919231_640During the last few years, there have been an unprecedented number of students with a military connection pursuing higher education. According the American Council on Education, in 2001-2012, more than 1 million students (4.9 percent of all undergraduate students), in the nation had a military connection including the National Guard, Reserves, Active Duty and Veterans. We can expect these numbers to surge as the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that more than 5 million post-9/11 service members will transition out of service by 2020.

The increase in enrollments for veterans and service members comes on the heels of two important actions: the continual drawdown of military from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the enactment of the Post 9/11 GI Bill®. In a recent presentation, Robert M. Worley, II, of the Veterans Benefit Administration indicated that since the enactment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, more than $53 billion has been spent by the Department of Defense (DoD) on 1.4 million service members, veterans and their families. These funds are in addition to ‘regular’ spending on higher education, including $56 billion by the U.S. Department of Education and $499 billion at the state and local level.

Despite this investment in veterans and service members, obstacles remain. As compiled by the National Association of Personnel Administrators and American Council on Education, obstacles that top the list for students who enrolled in 2004 include:

  • Limited preparation before getting to college: 27 percent of veterans enrolled in higher education did not complete algebra two (or higher) in high school
  • Limited advising support while enrolled in college: 44 percent of veterans report never meeting with an academic adviser
  • Limited faculty support on campus: 44 percent report not meeting with faculty outside of class
  • Lower graduation rates: 59 percent of veterans have not obtained a credential six years after entry into college

According to additional study by the American Council on Education, the average adjusted gross income for military-connected students is low. The range is from $30,538 for veterans to $47,503 for National Guard members. Their work also shows that more than 50 percent of veterans and active duty higher education students have dependents, while 20 percent of veterans are single parents.

In addition, military-connected individuals struggle to afford the cost of higher education in ways that differ from other students. This may come as a surprise given the amount of financial support available from DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The reality is military-connected individuals pay for higher education with a combination of grants, loans and VA/DoD benefits, in varying amounts, depending on the type of service. Referring back to the American Council on Education report, the average financial aid package for Veterans was $9,889. This package was composed of grants (53 percent), loans (25 percent) and VA/DoD benefits (21 percent). Compare this to active duty individuals where the average financial aid package was $4,565, with 51 percent grants, 12 percent loans and 36 percent VA/DoD benefits. These individuals have to navigate additional bureaucratic networks with fluctuating outcomes creating extra barriers to success.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Further challenges include transferring valid credits for educational learning completed in the service and predatory marketing by for-profit colleges to recruit and exploit individuals with VA/DoD benefits. Given these challenges, one key policy area should be considered to promote success in higher education for military-connected individuals. We need better data.

Improved data-sharing of student performance measures across the U.S. Department of Education, Veterans Affairs and Defense could help identify and cultivate support strategies for military-connected students that reflect their needs and characteristics. Undoubtedly, privacy concerns abound and this will be no easy feat. But fears over data-sharing cannot overshadow the necessity of encouraging success for these individuals.

Author: Stephanie Dolamore is pursuing a doctorate of public administration from the University of Baltimore. She has familial ties to the Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy. Email: [email protected].

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