Colleges Expand Services for Veterans, but Lag in Educating Faculty on Veterans' Needs

July 25, 2012

In the three years since the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect, colleges have nearly doubled their enrollment of student veterans, beefed up programs and services for them, and intensified marketing to recruit more. But institutions have also lagged in training faculty and staff to be sensitive to the issues veterans face, and often lack the tools to help veterans transition to campus life.

Those are among the findings of a report released on Wednesday by the American Council on Education. The report, "Soldier to Student II," is based on a survey of nearly 700 institutions on their response to the rapid uptick in the number of veterans going to college. It is a follow-up to a 2009 analysis, published on the eve of the new GI Bill's effective date.

Much has changed in the past three years. More than 760,000 veterans have enrolled in college under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Institutions, meantime, have hustled to create new programs—or expand existing ones—to help veterans adjust. They have added lounges for student veterans, established veteran-specific orientations, and developed long-term plans for programs.

The 690 institutions in ACE's survey reported an average enrollment of 370 veterans as students in 2012, more than double the number in 2009.

Sixty-two percent of colleges said they offer programs and services designed specifically for students who are active-duty servicemembers or veterans, up from 57 percent three years ago. Of those institutions, nearly three-quarters have a dedicated office to serve such students. Three years ago, fewer than half did.

The report also notes the rise of student-veteran organizations in the past three years. Today, two-thirds of the colleges with support services for veterans also had student groups. Nationally, Student Veterans of America has grown to more than 500 chapters, from only 20 in 2008.

Perhaps especially surprising, given the fiscal environment, was the survey's finding that more than half of institutions planned to add staff members to existing programs for veterans. Public four-year colleges seemed to be most eager to do so: Nearly two-thirds of those respondents said they planned to increase spending on services and programs for veterans. Among public two-year and private four-year colleges, fewer than half did.

'Work to Be Done'

Although the report highlights several areas in which colleges have expanded services to veterans, it also flags some concerns.

In particular, colleges are not doing enough to raise sensitivity to veterans' issues among faculty and staff, the report says. Less than half of institutions, it says, offer training for faculty and staff on veteran and military students and what they need to succeed in college.

"Given an environment where less than 1 percent of Americans have been in the military serving on active duty over the past decade of conflict," the report says, "continuing effort is needed to educate members of the campus community on how to best help these students acclimate to the campus environment."

Despite a need for additional training, Wendy Lang, who directs Operation College Promise, a New Jersey-based program that has trained more than 300 campus professionals in 25 states to work with student veterans, called ACE's report "all positive news." But, she stressed: "There's a lot of work to be done, and we can certainly do better."

Many colleges have developed sophisticated services for veterans, she said, but plenty still offer very little—or nothing at all. Operation College Promise works with campuses that have been aggressive and innovative in crafting support services, Ms. Lang said. "But it's important to realize that there are still institutions out there that have not had access to assistance to build that framework."

Turning attention to faculty members who may be unaware of veterans' challenges is a priority, Ms. Lang said. In October, her organization plans to start an online, interactive training program for instructors who want to learn more about student veterans but can't get away from campus for one of the in-person training sessions, which last for several days.

Meanwhile, she hopes ACE's report will spur colleges to do more. Among the report's other findings are the following:

  • More than two-thirds of colleges reported having staff members specifically trained to work with veterans. The presence of such staff was slightly more common at public two- and four-year institutions than at private institutions.
  • About one-third of colleges have partnerships with the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver services to student veterans, while nearly three-quarters have arrangements to refer students directly to the VA for additional services. (The VA, through its VetSuccess program, now has two dozen campuses at which VA services are available.)
  • Only 8 percent of respondents reported support groups specifically for female veterans, who by one Department of Veterans Affairs analysis represent roughly one in five veterans on campus.
  • More than 80 percent of colleges provide counseling on using veterans' benefits, and roughly the same share award academic credit for military training.

The American Council on Education co-wrote the report with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and the National Association of Veteran's Program Administrators.