Uncle Sam wants veterans to sign up for college! And colleges and universities are vying to create "veteran friendly" programs, classes, and centers to attract the ex-G.I.'s—and the billions of U.S. dollars provided by the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
Some are trying too hard, said President Barack Obama in an April 2012 speech at Fort Stewart, Ga. "We're going to bring an end to the aggressive—and sometimes dishonest—recruiting that takes place," said the president. He announced an executive order that requires colleges to provide more information about financial aid and graduation rates.
The order is aimed at for-profit colleges, which enroll 23.3 percent of military beneficiaries but use 36.5 percent of the funding, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. The sector advertises heavily to G.I.'s.
More than half a million veterans, their dependents, and active-duty military personnel are taking postsecondary courses, according to American Progress. The post-9/11 G.I. Bill provides 36 months of tuition equal to the cost of the most-expensive public university in the state, plus a housing allowance and book stipend. Most veterans enroll in community colleges and for-profit colleges.
It's not clear how many will succeed in earning degrees or vocational certificates.
"The challenges and barriers being encountered by veterans at many institutions make it more likely that ex-G.I.s will leave college with debts instead of degrees," warns American Progress.
Rusty academic skills, family responsibilities, and a sense of alienation from younger classmates can make it hard for veterans to succeed on campus, as noted in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. Some also struggle with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.
Hoping to be listed as "veteran friendly," colleges and universities are opening centers where veterans can find help with military benefits, counseling, and career advice. Veterans strongly support one another, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education (ACE).
Onondaga Community College, in Syracuse, N.Y., uses veterans to help new G.I. Bill enrollees. "I've seen almost instant rapport between a work-study vet who may have already been in school a semester or two as (s)he meets with a vet applying to school, giving the new student the benefit of their experience and continuing the habit of 'watching your buddy's back' that most have developed in the service," Keith Stevenson, a college staffer and Coast Guard veteran, told the ACE.
Some colleges have created special courses to help veterans transition back into civilian life.
Sierra College, in Rocklin, Calif., offers Boots to Books, which combines a remedial English class designed for veterans with a course on study skills.
However, some colleges have dropped special classes for veterans, preferring to focus on integrating them fully into the college community.
Meredith Martin created a history class for veterans at Collin College in Texas, but not enough signed up. She opened up the class, letting the vets share their "real-world experience" with younger classmates. There were enough veterans to create "instant camaraderie," Martin wrote in Community College Times.
Getting college credit for military training is a big issue for veterans. The ACE has created a guide to help colleges evaluate military training, but most vets receive no credit for their prior learning, concludes a 2011 study, "Completing the Mission."
However, some colleges are helping vets build on previous experiences to earn credits. Clackamas Community College in Oregon has created 21 bridge courses to help student veterans combine their military training with traditional coursework to earn credits in law enforcement, business administration, mechanics, human services, English, and the humanities.
For-profit colleges are more likely than community colleges to help veterans earn credits for military training, according to Jennifer Steele, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation who surveyed student veterans in a 2010 study.
Student veterans also complained of being shut out of crowded classes at public two- and four-year colleges—but not at for-profit colleges.
Veterans chose for-profit colleges for "classes that meet on evenings and weekends and focus on career-relevant skills," as well as for the choice of face-to-face or online classes, Steele writes. Tuition didn't exceed their G.I. Bill benefits, so vets didn't need to borrow.
In the battle to enroll G.I. Bill beneficiaries, for-profit colleges are gaining ground.