Veterans play a critical role in the U.S. economy. For many returning veterans, education is the first step to successfully reentering civilian life and the workforce. Since the inception of the first GI Bill (Servicemen’s Readjustment Act) in 1944, higher education has been responding to the needs of military students. There were over 555,000 veteran and active duty beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2011, up from nearly 35,000 in 2009, according to the Veterans Benefits Administration. When combined with the veterans and active duty service members receiving other forms of educational support, this number jumps to 925,000 for 2011, totaling more than $10 billion. The Veterans Benefits Administration states that, “educational benefits are meant to enhance the nation’s competitiveness through the development of a more highly educated and productive workforce.”
Veterans are dedicated employees and entrepreneurs with invaluable skill sets, excellent teamwork and leadership skills, and commendable devotion to their employers or businesses. Without the assistance of higher education, it’s probable that the current 12% jobless rate among post-2001 veterans would increase. Higher education must do more to meet and exceed the educational needs of military students by maximizing Post 9/11-GI Bill benefits, providing supplemental programs, offering practical degrees and assisting in career placement.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) explains that “the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides financial support for education and housing to individuals with at least 90 days of aggregate service after September 10, 2001, or individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days. You must have received an honorable discharge to be eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.” Benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill include up to 100% tuition and fee coverage, a monthly living (housing) stipend, up to $1,000 a year for books and supplies, a one-time relocation allowance, and the option to transfer benefits to family members.
Challenges of the Post-9/11 GI Bill
The implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill created many challenges for colleges. The administrative burden of monitoring GI benefits has caused college administrators to report a workload increase of 50% to 200% since the bill was implemented, according to a 2011 report by the RAND Corporation and the Lumina Foundation for Education on behalf of the American Council on Education.
Reasons for increased workload were cited as: 1) managing a 35% to 100% increase in total GI Bill enrollments; 2) familiarizing staff with new benefit details and a new certification software system; 3) working with the student accounts office to ensure that the institution received the correct tuition payments and to troubleshoot payment errors with the VA; 4) resubmitting enrollment verifications to the VA each time a student added or dropped a course; and 5) assisting students in understanding their benefit options.
To manage the increased workload, colleges have added staff and rely on VA work-study students when possible. Some colleges have also applied for grant money to fund additional veteran-related staff positions.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a main reason military students begin or continue their postsecondary education. For military students to obtain the maximum benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they must select a college that recognizes the challenges presented by this version of the GI Bill and is experienced in managing the benefits it offers.
A qualified college should also be able to help military students use supplemental programs like the Yellow Ribbon Program. A provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program is designed to help students avoid up to 100% of the out-of-pocket tuition and fees that may exceed GI Bill tuition benefits. Military-friendly colleges will help military students receive additional funds through GI Bill provisions like the Yellow Ribbon Program without additional charges to the student’s entitlement.
Besides helping students leverage military student assistance, military-friendly colleges should provide additional accommodations for veterans and active service members. Military-friendly colleges will accept College Level Examination Programs or DANTES Subject Standardized Test exams for credit, and most will accept military training and experience for credit through the American Council on Education. Additionally, military-friendly colleges offer military student benefits such as: tuition discounts; in-state tuition without residency requirements; fee-waived applications; flexible schedules through evening, weekend, and online courses; and reenrollment without penalty for military students who are called to active duty.
Most military-friendly colleges will offer programs that further assist military students, their spouses and family members in achieving their education goals. Colleges will often partner with organizations like the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Degree Network System, an organization that works to provide educational opportunities to military students who, because of frequent relocation, have difficulty completing their college degrees. Furthermore, military-friendly colleges may offer programs like the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts, a program that provides up to $4,000 (over two years) of financial assistance for military spouses pursuing degree programs, licenses or credentials that lead to employment in portable career fields. A military-friendly college’s commitment to military students is demonstrated by its ability to leverage benefits and supplemental programs.
Veteran and active service members demand degree options that will serve them in today’s challenging economy. Colleges looking to appeal to the military student should offer two- and four-year degree options in areas such as management, leadership and public administration. Furthermore, military students typically require flexible degree schedules through day, night, and online courses. Military-friendly colleges must take note of these unique needs and respond accordingly.
In addition to flexible degree options, colleges must focus on career placement to ensure that military students are supported during their transition into the workplace. Colleges that offer support through internship opportunities, access to career counselors, and a network of military-friendly employers are able to provide the most essential support. Military-friendly colleges that have experienced veteran advisors and counselors on staff are able to connect military students with local VET REPS for career placement and guide students through upcoming transitions. Colleges should also leverage their business and community connections in order to guide military students from the classroom to the workforce in a systematic manner that generates career readiness and success.
With an estimated one million servicemembers, military spouses and family members expected to reenter the civilian workforce over the next five years, colleges’ roles have become more important than ever in the effort to decrease the unemployment rate among these individuals. By supporting veterans through their transition from the military to the workforce, colleges can make a significant impact on the individual success of each servicemember and the economy as a whole.
Thomas M. McGovern is president of Fisher College and a U.S. Army veteran. Email: email@example.com.