What’s Next? Ideas for Future Exploration in Student Veteran Access and Success
This October, we embarked on a blog series focusing on the experiences of student veterans in higher education, sharing takeaways from our conversations with eight campus-based programs and non-profit organizations that support student veterans’ college success alongside the latest enrollment data. Those conversations provided insights into many best practices that institutions can employ to recruit, enroll, and graduate veteran students, while also introducing new questions and ideas for future work. In this installment, we identify several areas for additional exploration. Colleges and universities, as well as the higher education philanthropic community, have long demonstrated a commitment to underrepresented students. As they consider future funding commitments, we hope student veterans’ access and success will be an area of increased focus.
In addition to benefiting the veterans themselves and their families and enriching the campus community, the role of the military in our democracy should not be taken for granted. As higher education looks to support our democratic traditions, we need to support those who enlist and serve, especially as they face challenges related to their service to our country. Many do so in hopes of using the earned benefits, like the GI Bill, to continue their education, and it is imperative that they are able to do so. If those who serve do not feel that they are being treated fairly, we put our democracy at risk.
Below, we outline some steps that policymakers, researchers, and advocates can take to ensure that student veterans’ educational needs and outcomes are a top priority.
- Collect better data: As interest in enrolling and supporting student veterans continues to grow, we need better data to understand not only their enrollment patterns, but also student veterans’ experiences and challenges. Some ways to bolster the data infrastructure are:
- Establish a national, public collection of data on student veterans. As we mention in our blog post focused on veterans enrollment trends, there is no public enrollment data on student veterans specifically, only on GI Bill beneficiaries broadly. Many organizations collect their own data, and Wick Sloane publishes some insights annually—the result of a manual collection process (no easy feat!) that suggests that schools seem willing to share these data despite the lack of national or public data collection. The federal government’s data system (IPEDS) would be well positioned to request these data due to their existing collection infrastructure, although a separate entity could take this on with financial support. Once detailed enrollment data are available, collecting retention and graduation data for student veterans would be the best next step, to understand not only where veterans enroll, but ultimately, where they succeed.
- Launch national surveys for both enlisted service members and student veterans. For service members, some relevant questions might be: What are they looking for when considering higher education? What information do they already have, and what do they still need? For student veterans, some relevant questions might be: What are their experiences with application, matriculation, and on-campus life? What challenges do they face? We know some of this information on a smaller scale, but institutions and organizations that work directly with student veterans could provide even better support for students with a more complete picture. While individual institutions often conduct their own surveys of students, an external organization may be better suited to conduct surveys across the broad population of student veterans.
- Evaluate the programs that work closely to support student veteran success. In our research, we identify best practices through conversations with institutions and non-profit organizations that support student veteran success. While our research to date has provided insight into what works well, a more rigorous evaluation, conducted by an organization experienced in external evaluations, would better tease out the specific program elements that have the greatest impact and allow us to replicate and extend those to serve more students.
- Pursue additional research: In addition to collecting better and more timely data to help us understand how student veterans navigate the higher education system, we also need to deepen our understanding of how the paths that they take are established, maintained, and changed. As our past research suggests, there is a dearth of empirical work or practical guidebooks to help student veterans navigate the systems of selecting, applying to, financing, and completing their educational journeys. This lack of understanding limits philanthropic and policy support for scalable interventions to support student veteran success. Some future areas of research we propose include:
- Financial Aid. One of the most complicated areas of the student experience is financial aid, an area even more complex for student veterans who must also navigate and keep track of their various GI Bill benefits. Even with more financing options available, student veterans’ constellation of funding sources are often insufficient to cover living expenses along with tuition and fees at many colleges and universities. These challenges create an acute need for a more integrated understanding of the financial aid landscape for veteran students, including a review of the available funding sources, how students can access them, and what limitations exist. Such a review can provide student veterans with much-needed information on how to strategically use the various forms of funding and can highlight for policymakers gaps in funding that inhibit student veteran success.
- Online learning. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning was a perennial point of discussion across higher education institutions and associations. Two questions from that time remain vital: How do students learn online and what can instructors and institutions do to effectively support that learning? Despite attention in the scholarly literature and popular press, almost nothing is known about how student veterans experience online learning. While online learning offers tremendous promise in terms of flexibility and adaptability, we know little about how to create community for students learning online or about how credits earned online transfer to other institutions.
- Post-graduation employment. Much of the success of higher education institutions and students is measured by the employment prospects of graduates. Veterans in general often face difficulties in translating their service experiences into resume-friendly bullet points for recruiters and hiring managers. This problem can be exacerbated when the administrators tasked with helping students navigate that first post-college job search process are as unfamiliar with the experiences of student veterans as the potential employers. More work should be done to understand how career services professionals approach working with veteran students and what kinds of services or programming are most effective at helping veterans land a post-college dream job.
- Convene schools, non-profits, and foundations: The number of institutions, non-profits, and foundations that focus on veterans’ access and success continues to grow, yet many are tackling the same challenges and are not closely collaborating. Strategically combining efforts, or at least sharing awareness, could help to improve efficiency and efficacy in supporting student veterans. In both 2018 and early 2020, Ithaka S+R and the College Board convened leaders from higher education, veterans service organizations, and the military, aiming to bring all key players under one roof. But, the pandemic paused this large-scale in-person gathering, and while some groups have continued to collaborate (e.g. VetLink, Syracuse’s IVMF, and Warrior-Scholar Project), the broader ecosystem would benefit from re-starting conversations across silos, especially as the context around veterans enrollment has changed in the last few years.
- Work with the military to learn more about what happens during and after time of service:
- Understand the resources and information shared. Resources for transitioning service members continue to evolve, but civilian support organizations have little insight into the information the military provides about educational opportunities after service. Service members would benefit from information about educational options early in their service to help with a smooth transition to higher education programs.
- Understand and recognize credits accumulated while serving. Service members can accumulate credits during their service through training, awards, and the CLEP exam. Many of these credit options are available for all students, not just those serving in the military. Providing service members with more information about their transfer options and pathways will enable them to make better decisions about the courses that will help them achieve their educational goals most efficiently.
These ideas are just the beginning—exploring any one of these steps could in turn lead to new avenues of interest. We are eager to connect with interested policymakers, researchers, and advocates, and the higher education philanthropic community. Please feel free to reach out to Emily Schwartz (email@example.com) and Michael Fried (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss any of these ideas further.