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Professional Opinion

Joining the ranks of military friendly colleges for student vets

A better way to serve those who have served by moving from veteran-friendly to veteran-effective
University Business, August 2017
 Rasheed Atwater is a student veteran at Eastern Michigan University. Russell Olwell is an associate dean and professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.
Rasheed Atwater is a student veteran at Eastern Michigan University. Russell Olwell is an associate dean and professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

Faculty and administrators may assume that student veterans already have the funds they need to pay for school, that they are plugged into healthcare through the Veterans Administration, and are well on their way to a degree or career. This is not the case on campuses across the nation—and student veterans will tell you so.

To help a large university in Michigan better serve student-veterans, we conducted a perception survey.

Asked for three words that described being a student veteran, responses included:

  • difficult, broke, stressed
  • difficult, time-consuming, hungry
  • invisible, older, nontraditional
  • constantly being attacked

Student veterans who relayed more positive messages also noted the challenges, but put their struggles in context of the strengths they bring to campus:

  • interesting, challenging, diverse
  • disciplined, prepared, accountable
  • on my own
  • great leadership opportunity

While colleges and universities value being veteran-friendly, even campuses with welcoming attitudes can be less than effective at supporting academic success for these students. To help more student veterans complete college and attain the civilian career they aspire to, administrators must focus on four key concepts.

Veterans are a diverse population

Student veterans can be grouped in two populations. The first consists of younger veterans, under 35, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who receive benefits under the post-9/11 GI Bill. The second cluster is veterans over age 35, who served in a variety of conflicts, had a wider range of challenges and were more likely to be funded by vocational rehabilitation programs.

Our survey found that post-9/11 GI Bill students were more likely to check in with an authorizing official once per term to make sure that classes were being paid, while vocational rehabilitation students met frequently with a Veterans Administration representative who came to campus once per week. In other words, one group (under 35) receives regular support and assistance, the other less so.

Veterans don’t expect the university to meet all their needs

Student veterans, in their extracurricular lives, are very different from their peers. The vast majority of student veterans live off campus, and most have more urgent family responsibilities than their classmates, such as caring for children, as part of their regular responsibilities.

While the veterans appreciated help negotiating their health benefits, they don’t expect a campus health center to be able to meet their more specialized medical and counseling needs.

Career concerns motivate veterans to participate in programs

Although younger veterans struggled more than their older counterparts on finding a career focus, both groups are highly motivated by employment prospects. This focus on the future can be used to help attract them to programming, which, in turn, can spark a discussion of what support veterans need to achieve their career goals.

Peers are an important resource

Student veterans want to connect to fellow student vets. One-fifth of those surveyed wanted more connection, and about a third reported interest in being mentored by fellow student veterans to smooth the transition from military service to academic life.

Key issues that veterans identify as presenting barriers to college completion are lack of credit for previous experience, the cost of education and reintegration to civilian life.  


Russell Olwell is an associate dean and professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. Rasheed Atwater is a student veteran at Eastern Michigan University.

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