In honor of Veterans Day and those who have served our country, we’d like to take some time to look at the educational benefits available to veterans and the men and women who currently serve. Veterans returning from military service are enrolling in college programs in record numbers, but many of our veterans are finding the college experience far less than favorable. They’ve fought for our country honorably – they shouldn’t have to fight for their education benefits too.
Let’s take a look at the education benefits available and how colleges across the nation are working to improve the services they extend to our veterans all the way from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The implementation of the new GI Bill, renamed the Post-9/11 GI Bill, helps to connect American’s veterans to higher education by significantly expanding the education benefits available to veterans. The new GI Bill helps veterans to earn their degree by paying the full tuition and fees at over 4,000 colleges and providing a monthly living and book and supply stipend.
But many still find that the government’s education programs for service members are inadequate. A loophole in the Bill can often make student loans non-deferrable. Loans can be deferred during times of military service, but when student loans are held by multiple banks, the deferment process can often be undermined. Roy Brown and Eli Williamson, two Army vets, decided to help. Brown and Williamson created Leave No Veteran Behind, a non-profit organization that helps struggling veterans manage their debt and pay off their loans. Loans that veterans take out before entering the service and classes that are interrupted by deployment, for example, are not covered under the GI Bill. The pair recently helped 26-year Air Force veteran Doris Barren, now 51, pay off her entire $5,000 student loan. As they see it, it’s one down, one million to go.
The “culture shock” of reclamation to the civilian world of college campuses is also difficult for veterans, a recent study from the National Survey of Student Engagement found. The transition from military to civilian life is unquestionably hard and the reported lack of support on college campuses can only make the transition more difficult. Of 11,000 veterans surveyed, many reported feeling “disconnected” from the school they attend. The report suggests that college campuses and administration seek out ways of more effectively engaging veterans and providing them with “supportive environments that promote success.” Brian Hawthorne, a student veteran who served twice in Iraq with the Army and is now a graduate student at George Washington University urges educators to understand the differences between veterans and traditional college students, and to provide student veterans with the network of support systems they need.
Many colleges are trying to combat these issues and make the higher education process and experience easier for veterans in hopes that, one day, organizations like Leave No Veteran Behind will be out of work. Colleges have traditionally given honor students and athletes first dibs on classes or “priority registration.” Now, across the nation, student veterans are being given the same opportunity. Prominent ground colleges, like the University of Arizona, are giving veterans the opportunity to register for classes early, ensuring that the classes they want and need to take are available. In 2009, the state of California mandated that all state schools give veterans and current service members priority registration. Additionally, online schools offer veterans a multitude of education opportunities with flexible class scheduling and extensive student services.
A number of corporations are also trying to increase the availability of education benefits for veterans by donating millions of dollars to veteran education programs. Microsoft has given $2 million in cash and $6 million in cutting-edge software to organizations that provide veteran education, skill training and job placement. The money will also be used for services such as career counseling and childcare. An officer in the Navy for nine years, Ross Janson is one veteran who has taken advantage of the Microsoft funding. Janson is taking computer and technology courses at Veterans Inc., one veteran’s organization that received Microsoft funding, to prepare himself for a civilian job in an increasingly tech-driven economy.
Department store super-power Wal-Mart has also contributed, giving $10 million over a five-year period to non-profit organizations that offer veterans job training and higher education or continuing education opportunities. J.C. Penny recently gave $1 million for 5,000 veterans to purchase business clothes for their new civilian workplace. Robert Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, the gaming company which produces popular video games like Call of Duty, was persuaded by the sheer number of unemployed veterans to establish a $1 million foundation to support them. The company recently announced an additional $1 million gift.
Student Veterans of America, a student run organization which helps student veterans transition into college and earn their degree, is one of the countless student-run organizations that many colleges offer to their veterans. There are currently 300 college chapters and Michael Dakduk, the deputy executive director of the organization, hopes that the number of chapters nationwide continues to expand. Through his work, Dudak says what amazes him the most is the number of veterans “succeeding, despite the obstacles.”