Anthony Arnold left college his freshman year to enlist in the Navy. When he returned to finish his undergraduate degree five years later, he wasn’t like everyone else. He was older. He was trained in military intelligence. He had spent 15 months in Afghanistan.
Being back on campus was a big adjustment.
“You have some students here who are 18, 19, who have never left the state of Indiana,” said Arnold, now 29 and an Indiana University law student. “And their biggest concern is what they’re wearing to the party Friday night.
“And then you have older students who have served in a war zone and fought in combat. And so their priorities are different.”
With the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of thousands of military veterans have come home - and gone back to school. Colleges across the country are scrambling to support growing student veteran populations that don’t fit in so neatly on campuses of backpack-toting, fresh-out-of-high-school teenagers.
Schools are trying to make education accessible for people who volunteered to serve their country. But do they really understand what veterans need? Are these students graduating from public universities? In how many years?
“We need to focus more on this,” said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education. “It’s hard to provide the level of service without knowing the data.”
Near the bowling alley, arcade and pool tables, student veterans can walk into an office at IU’s Memorial Union and find someone who can decipher their financial aid. They can ask for help to stay on track academically. They can meet other student veterans. Or they can just go there to drink coffee and eat cookies.
“It’s nice for veterans not to feel isolated,” said Arnold, who started IU’s chapter of Student Veterans of America, inspired by the support organization he had as a University of Michigan undergraduate.
In Indiana, many universities have established one-stop resource centers, such as IU’s Office of Veterans Support Services.
“Our veterans even tell us that it’s not so much their ‘veteran-ness’ that might make them feel they stand out,” said Margaret Baechtold, the office’s director and university’s military and veterans services coordinator.
Sometimes they have families and jobs to worry about. Sometimes they enroll with previous college credits or credits from military training. Sometimes, Baechtold said, they’re just going to feel a slight disconnect.
State lawmakers are looking into formalizing “combat to college” programs. A bill awaiting the Indiana governor’s signature at press time proposes that colleges enrolling more than 200 veterans would have to provide a central location for student veterans’ admissions, registration and financial support services. It also calls for academic and career counseling specifically for veterans. Liaisons would receive training to work with veterans, particularly to recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Several universities, including IU, predict the measure wouldn’t change much at their schools because they already offer many of those services.
The proposal floated through the state House and Senate with nearly unanimous votes. If the governor signs it, it will go into effect July 1.
Untangling the state and federal financial aid benefits for student veterans makes up the bulk of support services at Indiana universities.
“Sometimes it’s hard to navigate who’s paying what, where the money’s going, if the school is tracking it or not tracking it,” said Arnold at IU.
Complicating it all are frequent delays in the arrival of benefit checks, says Ben Burton, chief student financial resources officer for Ivy Tech Community College. Federal budget cuts also have led to uncertainty over funding military education, with sequestration threatening military tuition assistance programs.
“The last thing we need,” Burton said, “is an additional obstacle.”
But veterans coordinators say taking care of money matters often opens an opportunity to simply check in with student veterans.
“They want to have enough unique services to feel comfortable making the transition from the military to the school atmosphere - and yet not so much that they’re segregated from the rest of the population,” he said. “It’s really a fine line.”
In Indiana, lawmakers also are considering waiving residency requirements for veterans to qualify for in-state tuition if they enroll at a state college within a year of leaving the military. The bill also would freeze tuition for veterans.
“It’s a way to make a statement,” said Lubbers, the higher education commissioner, pledging “a strong commitment” to student veterans.
Across the country, education officials are realizing that they lack ways to track crucial veterans metrics.
Recent research by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, a professional organization, showed that most surveyed higher education institutions had veterans support services.
But only 5 percent said they had data to prove their programs are successful.
At IU, school officials are wrapping up an initial survey to collect student veterans’ feedback.
A need for numbers
If universities track low-income students and minority students, Army reservist Russell Silver said, they should break down numbers on veterans, too.
“That’s one area where we haven’t made much headway,” said Silver, 33, an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis graduate and veterans advocate. He started IUPUI’s veterans group and spearheaded a campus student-veterans task force.
Support services have improved since his college days, but Silver advocates going further. There’s not enough data or student input built into Indiana’s proposed combat-to-college law, he said.
“It’s very symbolic,” he said. “It certainly puts a flag in the ground to say, ‘Here’s the minimum.’ But it’s something we can build on in the future.”