Serving Those Who Have Served: Veteran Student Success Summit
November 2013, Volume 16, Number 11
By Marcia Conston
Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 21.8 million veterans live in the United States (2013). The report also noted that 92 percent of veterans age 25 and older have at least a high school diploma, while only 26 percent have at least a college degree. Military persons returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are as likely as civilians to be unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for all veterans is 6.2 percent, compared with the civilian rate of 7.3 percent (2013). However, the unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans is 7.2 percent. The Association of American Colleges and Universities includes providing education for veterans as one of the current top ten policy issues in higher education (Hurley, McBain, Harnisch, Parker, & Russell, 2012). As part of the Obama administration's efforts to address national unemployment, the President signed the Veterans Skills to Jobs Act in 2012 (The White House, 2012). This law makes it easier for returning service members to put their skills to work, as well as for manufacturing companies to hire thousands of returning service members.
In August 2013, the Obama administration announced a new initiative to address the educational needs and improve employment outcomes of the veteran population. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, "The 8 Keys to Successencourages institutions of higher education to support veterans with access to the courses and resources they need to ensure that they graduate and get good jobs" (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). Since the announcement of this initiative, more than 250 community colleges and universities in 24 states and Washington, DC, have implemented the 8 Keys to Success to assist student veterans on their campuses. More schools are expected to embrace the Keys in the coming months (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).
Translating military experience to educational skills has become an unfortunate reality and dilemma for many returning veterans. However, under President Obama's direction, the Department of Defense established a Military Credentialing and Licensing Task Force to identify opportunities where service members can earn civilian occupational credentials and licenses without the need for additional training (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2013). First Lady Michelle Obama recently challenged all 50 states to establish credentialing and licensing legislation for veterans by the year 2015. To date, 38 states have passed laws eliminating barriers, thus enabling service members and veterans to earn state licenses, most notably as emergency medical technicians, paramedics, commercial drivers, and licensed practical nurses (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2013).
Recognizing the need for action, community colleges across the nation also focused attention on improving veteran educational access and support. Many community colleges have been recognized as military-friendly. Specific processes, policies, programs, and services have been implemented to address veteran student needs. However, there are other needs that go beyond the traditional service contact points to direct the community and institutions of higher education to expand assistance and support for veterans as they transition to civilian life. While there are many organizations and agencies available to provide support, most often veterans seek educational and job skills training at colleges to help them prepare to enter the civilian work force.
As institutions accustomed to responding rapidly to community demands, community colleges are preparing to assume a leadership role in providing education and skills training to assist military persons and their families. Community colleges are continually creating programs to enable veterans to transition with ease while maximizing use of their military training and experiences in the academic environment. Colleges have recognized the importance of mass media outlets as a mechanism for promoting veteran student success, as well as for highlighting the plights many veterans are experiencing in their local communities.
In May 2013, during an annual meeting of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), some discussion centered on initiatives to enhance PBS stations' support of postsecondary education. Providing support for veterans was a frequent point of interest, with a focus on how postsecondary education can aid veterans in workforce development and reentering civilian life. Using local PBS stations to highlight the needs of veterans in their communities by telling their stories was suggested as a means of creating public interest. Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), located in Charlotte, North Carolina, began planning a Veteran Student Success Summit as a think-tank style meeting to further explore ways to serve veterans via education and the media, and to identify opportunities to fund a future major joint initiative. League for Innovation in the Community College board member schools and select PBS stations, specifically those affiliated with their local community college, were invited to participate.
Purpose of the Summit
Approximately 50 participants convened for the Veteran Student Success Summit, held on September 16-17, 2013, in Dallas, Texas. The primary focus of the Summit was two-fold: (1) for community colleges to share data and best practices on serving the needs of veteran and active military students, and (2) to engage local PBS TV stations in discussions on ways to promote veterans' issues through the media. The Summit opened with six objectives:
- Position interested community colleges as the primary entities for providing college credit for military training and occupational experience.
- Expand veterans' and active service members' knowledge and career readiness skills.
- Improve veterans' and active service members' chances for success in civilian employment.
- Position interested PBS stations as the principal information disseminators for community resources and services for veterans and military families; produce local programming to highlight veteran stories; and promote programs and services provided by community colleges.
- Explore the possibilities of community colleges and PBS stations working collaboratively to help veterans find the educational programs and services they need to secure jobs leading to meaningful civilian lives and careers.
- Identify financial resources to fund a collaborative project in support of veteran and active military students.
Preparing for the Veteran Students Success Summit: Research and Data Analysis
In preparation for the Summit, CPCC staff conducted research utilizing its 2,200 student veteran population, services provided by the college's Veteran Resource Center, and other external sources. Demographics of the veteran students at CPCC are as follows: males represent 73 percent of this group; 55 percent are minorities; and 57 percent are over age 30. The majority of CPCC's student veteran population utilizes Chapter 30, GI Bill benefits.
Student focus groups and surveys revealed that 65 percent of the veterans at CPCC were first-generation college students, and 71 percent were under-employed, part-time, or unemployed. Of those employed, 58 percent had an annual income of $20,000 or less. They expressed that their greatest need for services were employment, education, and medical assistance. However, their greatest personal needs were financial and mental or physical health. These student veterans hoped the community college would assist with job placement, career coaching, and academic and technical support. Like all other students, the veterans sought to improve job skills, earn a college degree, and transfer to a university.
During the focus groups, student veterans' top responses to a series of questions were as follows:
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were leaving the military?
- A central location for military services
- residency rules
- use of technology
- how PTSD affects academic performance
What were your expectations for college during initial enrollment?
- Separate office for veteran students with specialized staff who can speak military language
- technology access
- a quiet place to study
- quick access to VA benefits personnel
What services have been most helpful during college?
- Veteran Resources Center;
- ab for veteran students
- learning communities
- social gatherings
What has been your greatest challenge transitioning from military to college?
- Financial assistance
- orientation for veteran students only
- academic assistance
- job placement
This research was invaluable in determining agencies to be invited to address these critical concerns at the Summit. As a result, invitations were sent to Victory Media, Student Veterans of America, and the American Council on Education.
The program featured student veterans who shared their experiences while in the military and during their return to civilian life. The students participated in a panel discussion on assisting veterans in finding translatable civilian jobs and meaningful careers. Other speakers and their messages are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Jeff Bucklew, Victory Media. Victory Media (PR Newswire, 2012), is a global military niche media firm headquartered in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, which owns and operates five global brands: G.I. Jobs, Military Friendly, Military Spouse, National Veteran Owned Business Association, and STEM Jobs. Each year, Victory Media selects colleges, universities, and trade schools that are deemed as military friendly. More than 12,000 institutions across the country are surveyed, and this year 1,824 were selected. Achieving status as a top military-friendly school in the nation is a prestigious designation for colleges, particularly community colleges.
Jeff Bucklew noted that the top selection criteria focus on an institution's commitment to providing military support on the campus; academic credibility; the percent of military students enrolled; academic credits given for military services; and flexibility for military students. Other factors considered are graduation rates of veteran students; employment rates; tuition assistance programs; veteran student surveys results; and military spouse policies.
Matthew Feger, Student Veterans of America. There will soon be more than one million users of the post 9/11 GI Bill, and it is anticipated that most of the veterans will attend a community college (Zoroya, 2013). Student Veterans of America (SVA) was officially incorporated in January 2008 to provide programs, resources, and support to the evolving network of local student veteran organizations. Today, SVA's presence at the local and national levels includes over 850 chapter affiliates with numerous private and nonprofit partners. Representing the SVA, Feger was asked to address how community college resources might be maximized and expanded, and what campus resources are critically important to student veterans.
From the student veterans' perspective, Feger noted that faculty advising and developing orientation sessions exclusively for this cohort is important. He suggested that SVA chapters at community colleges and local four-year institutions establish relationships. It is also important for community colleges to create task forces for student veterans to ensure that their needs are continuously identified and addressed. Finally, he highlighted a critical initiative of SVA, tracking graduation data for student veterans from 2000 to 2010. There was consensus among the participants that this research will be of much benefit to the two-year college community and the nation.
Meg Mitcham, American Council on Education. Mitcham addressed the Summit on the role of higher education in supporting student veterans. As Director of Veteran Programs with ACE, she provided a thorough overview of the credit for prior learning program dating back to its inception in 1918. Emphasizing the expectations of today's veterans, she advised colleges to be prepared to provide credit for prior experiences; offer programs that can be completed fairly quickly; hire staff who possess the skills to communicate in military language; and provide safe places for student veterans to congregate, such as lounges or other areas of comfort.
ACE's Transitions Assistance Program offers a national snapshot of programs, services, and policies on college campuses designed to serve veterans and military personnel, and the colleges' readiness to support the influx of the post 9/11 student veterans. The ACE Online Toolkit is an interactive online resource to help colleges and universities build effective programs for student veterans, create profiles that highlight services available on campus, and share information with peer institutions. Mitcham encouraged use of this site and recognized several best practices in community colleges across the country, such as competency based examinations, soft skills training, priority registrations, online community groups, textbook loan programs, student urgent relief funds (SURF), honor societies for veterans, and one-stop shops for all veteran services.
Shoshana Johnson, U.S. Veteran. Johnson, the first African American woman prisoner of war in the Iraq War, enlightened the group, citing personal experiences since her return. She expressed the need for community colleges to examine current procedures for addressing emotionally and psychologically wounded veterans. She suggested that online classes are often the preferred method of learning for veterans, and similarly, online discussion boards and access to online services are important. Many veterans prefer community colleges over universities since the former typically have smaller class sizes, frequent instructor/student interaction, and expanded resources for veterans.
During the Summit, participants engaged in roundtable discussions about proven and promising practices and workforce development programs for veterans. The seven roundtable groups discussed issues including outreach and recruitment, college services to veterans, and alignment of programs of study with job opportunities. The groups were charged to identify best practices that could become national models, providing opportunities for scaling to multiple colleges.
This session generated a plethora of initiatives and best practices, which were subsequently, grouped under four priority areas. A team captain was named for each area and individuals aligned themselves with the priority area according to their interest and the needs of their institutions. The four priority areas are:
- Professional Development Training for Faculty and Staff
- Personal Counseling and Career Coaching
- Veterans Online Orientation and Virtual Sharing
- Solutions Model—Common Core Mapping
Promising Practices at Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
In addition to identifying best practices that community colleges use to serve students, a second focus of the Summit was to engage local PBS television stations in discussions on ways to promote veterans issues through the media. Representatives from PBS stations representing Delta College and affiliate WDCQ–PBS, Central Piedmont Community College and affiliate WTVI–PBS, Connecticut PBN, and Vegas PBS brainstormed ways to use PBS stations to assist veterans by expanding class offerings, promoting services and programs, and telling their stories. At the conclusion of the brainstorming session, the team communicated several ideas during open dialogue.
At the highest level, the group discussed using PBS to profile the lives of returning veterans in their local communities. They recommended that testimonials be captured and shown on TV stations as well as on websites. The stations would also be used to provide transparency on the jobs available in their service areas, thus connecting veterans with local community colleges that provide education and skills training that correspond with job demand. PBS stations may also be used as a catalyst for providing course offerings to meet the demands of student veterans. An array of compressed course content can be packaged and offered at varying times throughout the day, enabling veterans to earn college credits at their pace. As noted by student participants at the Summit, while post-9/11 veterans recognize their educational needs and want to earn college credits, many experience difficulty assimilating into the broader community. This type of course offering would provide an alternative, and potentially enable thousands of veterans to earn college credentials and gain meaningful employment.
As anticipated, participants at the Summit were fully engaged and interested in continuing discussions to partner, expand resources by scaling up select programs, and seek external funding sources. Moving forward, team captains named to lead each of the four priority initiatives will organize their teams for action. The League discussion board will be used to continue dialogue and record actions taken by participating colleges and the PBS affiliate stations. To inform the broader college community, teams have been invited to make presentations at the 2014 Innovations conference.
Although the unemployment rate for all veterans continues to decline, many veterans still cannot find meaningful work. Coupled with the fact that many of the post 9/11 veterans are returning to civilian life experiencing various physical and emotional issues, obtaining the necessary training and education to become gainfully employed is challenging. However, veterans are generally optimistic and confident that with adequate support, transitioning to civilian life and a civilian career is possible. The current White House administration has been instrumental in establishing new veteran-focused programs and incentivizing educational and other entities to do likewise. Community colleges have had a significant impact on the decline in unemployment with the array of skills training and workforce development programs being offered. They are proactively implementing program and service strategies that go beyond traditional education settings to meet veterans' needs on campuses and in the community. Community colleges are using expertise from those who provide assistance to returning service members and input from veteran students to initiate best-practice models.
Awarding credentials, conducting research on veterans' issues, establishing resource centers, and using technology provide support for veterans attending community colleges. Showcasing veteran profiles through mass media allows the community to have a broadened perspective about former service members, their needs, and contributions. Television stations, such as those affiliated with PBS, provide information on meaningful careers as well as opportunities to expand course offerings. This Summit served as an impetus to ignite and strengthen collaborations between community colleges and mass media, with a view toward affecting the lives of our transitioning military personnel. With the support of the League, opportunities to scale significant and meaningful projects will be the focus during the coming months.
Hurley, D. J., McBain, L., Harnisch, T. L., Parker, E., & Russell, A. (2012, January). Top 10 higher education state policy issues for 2012. Washington DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from http://www.aascu.org/uploadedFiles/AASCU/Content/Root/PolicyAndAdvocacy/ PolicyPublications/Policy_Matters/Top_Ten_State_Policy_Issues_2012.pdf
PR Newswire. (2012, November 8). Content management solutions provider WebKit powers Victory Media's Top 100 Military Friendly Employers search site. [Press release]. The Business Journals. Retrieved from http://www.bizjournals.com/prnewswire/press_releases/2012/11/08/PH08606
The White House. (2012). Veterans. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/veterans
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (2013, August 10). Fact sheet: The Obama administration's work to honor our military families and veterans. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/10/fact-sheet-obama-administration-s-work-honor-our-military-families-and-v
U.S. Census Bureau (2013, August). Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/how/pdf/census_veterans.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, Press Office. (2013, August 12). President Obama applauds community colleges' and universities' efforts to implement 8 keys to veterans' success. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/president-obama-applauds-community-colleges-and-universities-efforts-implement-8
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013, August). The employment situation-August 2013. [News release]. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf
Zoroya, G. (2013, July 3). Post-9/11 G.I. Bill nears 1 million veterans with benefits. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/nation/2013/07/03/new-gi-bill-nears-one-million-enrollments/2486891/
Marcia Conston is Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services at Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.