Last month, my colleagues and I spoke with institutional representatives from five different institutions: Columbia University, Cornell University, Syracuse University, Texas A&M, and the University of Chicago. These institutions all have a strong commitment to student veteran enrollment, but are at different stages of the process. For example, Cornell and UChicago have been actively scaling up the enrollment of veterans over the last few years, while Texas A&M has long enrolled many hundreds of veterans each year. At Columbia and Syracuse, veterans’ enrollment and success is supported in two ways—through the work of the institutions’ related offices and services, but also at established centers (Columbia’s Center for Veteran Transition and Integration (CVTI) and Syracuse’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVM)) that inform and serve the broader field.

Despite different contexts, our conversations revealed that these universities share a few key best practices that provide a guiding path for institutions looking to improve access and success for student veterans, regardless of starting point.

Senior leader support is crucial

When an institution’s leader determines that an issue is an institutional priority, and sets goals and allocates staff and other resources accordingly, the likelihood for making progress on the issue increases. Veterans enrollment and success is no different—it requires an intentional effort from the top, and ideally, a public commitment as well.

In 2017, Cornell University provost Michael Kotlikoff announced a goal to enroll 100 military veterans over three years. This goal was especially notable because at the time very few veterans were enrolled at Cornell. Since that public statement, Cornell’s veterans enrollment (including active-duty service members, national guard, and reservists who are currently serving) is now almost nine times greater than it was in 2017, and in our conversation with Mary Fisk (student veteran advisor and program manager) and Kyle Downey (senior associate director for transfer/veteran admissions and enrollment), they said that this commitment not only established veterans enrollment as a priority for faculty and staff, but also provided admissions staff with the resources to dramatically increase outreach and recruitment efforts.

The other institutions we spoke with also pointed to the necessity of buy in at the top, often pointing to one or two institutional leaders who prioritized veterans enrollment. In addition to increasing enrollment numbers, commitment can also come in the form of improved services (like strengthening mental health support), revised policies (like allowing for accommodations, such as service animals), and intentional and strategic partnerships, as we discuss in the introduction to this blog series.

The structure of veterans admissions matters 

Each of these institutions employs a fairly hands-on admissions process, with ample opportunity for 1:1 connection between a prospective student and university staff. This is certainly more easily done at a smaller scale, but even Texas A&M, which enrolls more than 500 veterans, conducts 45 minute intake phone calls with every prospective student veteran.

The connection forged during admissions is then continued once the student enrolls. The University of Chicago has a model where the student veteran’s admissions counselor becomes that student’s academic advisor, promoting consistency and continuity in the student’s experience. At Texas A&M the veterans admissions office never fully “lets go” of the student after they enroll, an approach likely made easier by the fact that the veterans admissions office is strategically housed within the veterans center, not within the undergraduate admissions department. Many institutions aim to have a one-stop veterans center or a dedicated veterans space, which can help foster this sense of connection and community further.

Relatedly, in most cases, the institutions we spoke with are largely enrolling veterans as transfer students. This is an important structural distinction that often better recognizes a veteran’s past academic (and other) experiences, and is connected to a third best-practice: pre-admissions (and post-graduation) partnerships.

The best programs build partnerships pre-admissions AND post-graduation

Many veterans first enroll in community college after their military service concludes, making strong partnerships with community colleges one of the best ways for a four-year institution to reach prospective student veterans. Columbia’s CVTI built a free- and open-access MOOC focused on the admissions and enrollment process to help student veterans navigate the transition to postsecondary education. Texas A&M builds strong relationships with its local community colleges by inviting advisors from those different colleges to meet them on campus, where they show them around and highlight programs and supports they might mention to their students.

External organizations can help with pre-admissions partnerships: Posse Veterans, Service to School, and the Warrior-Scholar Project all work directly with veterans to prepare them for the admissions process and the college environment. In the case of Posse Veterans, that partnership extends through the student’s full four years of undergraduate education. These groups serve as a valuable asset for institutions on the front end of the pipeline by smoothing over differences between the expectations of traditional admissions offices and the experiences and accomplishments veteran applicants can offer.

The strongest programs also  support veterans after graduation. For example, Syracuse is establishing an employment pipeline for its student veterans as plans for a new semiconductor facility in the region are underway. For student veterans, who are typically older and have employment experience, thinking about post-graduation opportunities is in and of itself an important recruitment tactic.

Steps to take now (or soon)

We offer these examples to document some of the programs, initiatives, and efforts that are working well to support the enrollment, academic success, and meaningful post-college employment of student veterans. Our hope is that you will be able to translate some of what we have presented to your own institutional or organizational contexts.