By Lisa Jevens
published in Chicago Tribune, Advanced Education
Imagine taking a seat in your first college classroom — or your first one in years — knowing that everyone from the U.S. Commander in Chief on down is there to support your mission of completing your degree.
That is the message more and more colleges are sending to returning veterans in the post 9/11 era.This August, the Obama administration issued a list of best practices for colleges, spelling out its expectations to help more veterans succeed at education as a pathway to employment.
That same month, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill granting in-state tuition to all veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The Post-9/11 GI Bill was passed in 2008, with expanded education benefits for veterans, covering most if not all college tuition costs. Depending on the veteran’s service, it may also cover living costs, books and supplies, relocation, and may be transferable to a family member.
Last year, an American Council on Education survey reported 62 percent of responding schools provide programs and services specifically for active military and veterans, up from 57 percent three years prior. And 71 percent have it in their long-term plan.
That means once a veteran gets to campus, there are folks waiting for them whose job it is to make sure they don’t feel like a number.
Leading by example
Scott M. Stratton, military liaison and senior executive advisor at DeVry University in Addison, is one of them.
A former Army staff sergeant, Stratton entered college right after completing basic training and advanced individual training (AIT) after high school in 1992. But college did not work for him at all. So he re-entered the military, serving until 2000.
After completing his degree at DeVry in 2003, something pulled him back to work with student veterans there. “It became personal,” he says.“When I was a student, I noticed that there was a lack of services,” he says. “People started coming back in droves, after the Iraq war got going. We had buy-in from the top down to start building programs for veterans.”
He has lead by example at DeVry by giving veterans a single point of contact — him.“Veterans know where to find me, and I that have gone through the college ranks. That first semester can be a challenge. We have an understanding of that,” he says.
Stratton says peer mentoring, and a standout veteran’s club called the DeVry Military Resource Club, have been hugely successful.
“Our veteran’s club is one of the best,” he says. “The goal of the DMRC is to provide a soft landing for the transition from combat to college to career.
Because the DMRC exists, student veterans can solve challenges at the peer level.”
What are the challenges student veterans face, in addition to the physical and psychological ones we hear so much about?
“They are redefining how they learn material,” Stratton explains. “They might have been an excellent or mediocre high school or college student. But they have changed since then. We train the faculty to identify if they are having a challenge in the classroom. Also it might be the first time in years that they are on their own with meals, transportation, and housing, let alone college. We bring in external partners to discuss everything from personal finance to VA home loans.”
Part of the culture
Robert Morris University is also a local leader in serving student veterans.
In 2011 it hired James J. Flagg as its Veteran Admissions Counselor. A veteran of the Illinois National Guard, Flagg has been recognized by President Obama for his work with veterans, and appointed to city and state veterans councils. He advises the school’s Warriors to Scholars club as well.
RMU’s Vice President for Adult and Graduate Enrollment Catherine Lockwood says supporting veterans is part of the culture at Robert Morris. It begins with a streamlined, no-fee application, all the way through to a recognition ceremony at graduation. In fact, acceptance to the university is guaranteed for active and honorably discharged service members in most undergraduate programs.Lockwood says veterans like the accelerated degree programs Robert Morris University offers, which use a 10-week quarter system with pre-planned schedules.
“They feel they are already behind because they went into the military first,” she says. “It gives them the guidance that they are used to.”
Her own son is ending his Air Force service in December, and has chosen RMU’s dual bachelor’s and master’s degree accelerated program.
“We have demonstrated to our community that we revere their efforts as a whole,” she says.
“Veterans are a type of fraternity,” Stratton says. “If a veteran is having a success, with their problems being addressed or their education needs being met, it’s powerful. Our mission is not just to assist DeVry student veterans, but also other colleges. We help them stand up as well.”