Creating Student-Centric Support Systems for Military-Connected Students

Prior to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, little focus was put on promising practices to support military and veteran students in their pursuit of higher education. With the passage of this comprehensive benefit in 2009, administrators at colleges and universities throughout the country began the mad dash of trying to find ways to best support the approximate one million military-connected students looking to pursue post-secondary education with their new-found benefits.

Much work was done to identify promising practices that would lead to the success of military-connected students in higher education. Drawing on expertise from higher education leaders and researchers, the US Department of Education has identified seven risk factors that often impede a student’s ability to accomplish their post-secondary goals. These widely acknowledged risk factors include delayed college enrollment, part-time attendance, financial independence, full-time work, and undergraduates with dependents. While research indicates military-connected students do just as well, if not better, than their peers, recent research published by Veterans Education Success, shows many military-connected students tend to have at least four of these seven risk factors. The military-connected student population is also often first in their family to go to college (“first-generation”), low-income, and comes from other underserved student populations which also can impede academic attainment.

Despite these risk factors, military-connected students tend to excel in college.  Given how well they perform in school, one could safely assume much of this has to do with the resilience, dedication, and strong work ethic these students bring with them. These virtues might help them do as well as they do in school, but do not negate the role of support services on campus and the impact they can have on making the attainment of post-secondary credentials even more accessible for this high achieving student-population.

Some of the prevalent promising practices identified by higher education professionals include the need for top-down leadership support, clear and concise communication, having a designated veterans’ representative on campus and a student veterans lounge, creating a task force, and the use of peer-to-peer support. Each of these practices is indeed helpful and often necessary for colleges and universities as they begin the process of creating a strong foundation to serve the military community. Yet creating a solid foundation is only the beginning of a successful student-centric program. A solid foundation will pave the way for a strong program on campus for service members and veterans, but it alone does not suffice.  This is where the student voice must come in.

I have spoken with thousands of higher education professionals throughout the country. Some have come to me and shared about the robust programs they have developed and how excited they were to start implementing them yet were surprised when their military-connected students were not taking advantage of these programs. They struggled to find out why their students would not want to be a part of the tailgates, pizza parties, and other types of events they were hosting. My first question is always, “Have you asked your students what they want?,” followed by “Have you talked to your students about what is going on in their lives?” It is hard to know what is going on in a student’s life and what they might need if the college administrator lacks a situational awareness of what is happening in the lives of the students on your campus.

For example, exciting-sounding extra-curricular activities may be simply inaccessible for students who are single parents and don’t have free time as they juggle parenting along with working, going to school, and studying. They may not be able to afford childcare or want to leave their kids.  Transportation and food insecurity can also be obstacles to a student’s participation. Some students feel like a fish out of water and too old to connect with the younger students on campus. Yet others might be struggling in school and need extra support services but do not know that they exist on campus or feel embarrassed or like a failure for having to take advantage of them. These examples are stories I have heard directly from students and campus administrators as they work to navigate the best ways to meet their students’ needs and help them overcome hurdles that could impede their ability to succeed in higher education.

So how do these challenges get addressed? How does an institution of higher learning develop a strong program that engages its students, and increases the persistence, retention, and attainment of military-connected students? There is unfortunately not one clear-cut answer. What works at one school may not work at another. That said, what I have seen among colleges and universities that have established noteworthy programs are two key factors – relationships and flexibility.

Colleges and universities do not always need to have the glamorous programs others might. Some of the schools that I have seen do exceptionally well in supporting their military-connected students did not even have a budget to buy an ink cartridge for their printer. They were successful not because of money being poured into the program, though certainly money does make it easier, but because of the strong relationships the veterans coordinator or director had with their students. They were successful because they listened to the students and tailored programs to meet the needs the students expressed rather than the needs the administrator decided in a vacuum.  These are administrators who went to where the students were instead of waiting for them to come to their office, established trust, and partnered with local community resources to help those students meet basic needs such as food, housing, childcare, mental health counseling, and more. They were successful because they were able to maintain flexibility in their programs and services, use creativity, and hear directly from the students on ways they could best support those who have served our country.

These programs have shown that, even if resources are tight, the relationships established with the students and the ability to maintain flexibility in the programs offered will help higher education professionals create and execute strong programs that meet the needs of their military-connected students.

The same goes for federal and state policymakers. At Veterans Education Success, we actively work to bring today’s military-connected students in to meet with their federal and state representatives and policymakers so that higher education policy can be informed by the students’ voices and needs in order to make sure today’s students succeed.