Academic and Government Leaders Tackle Challenges Facing Student-Veterans

Summit results in seven key takeaways and a commitment to improving the narrative.

Being Veteran-Ready

With more than 200,000 service members transitioning to civilian life each year, colleges and universities need to be “veteran-ready.” This means providing student-veterans with resources, support and access to education that prepares them for success. “We need to shake things up, find new paths forward,” said OVMA Advisory Board Member and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Victor Holman ’82, underscoring the need for higher education and the federal government to collaborate more closely. Since 9/11, student-veteran enrollment has nearly tripled.

Providing Access and Opportunity

Higher education and the military are bracing for a drop in the college-age population, due to declining birth rates since the Great Recession. Thus, improving higher education’s access to the Department of Defense is one way to offset potential recruitment and enrollment challenges. “Military-connected students require different systems and structures of support,” said Rochelle Ford, president of Dillard University, a private, historically Black institution in New Orleans. The former Syracuse professor added that asynchronous strategies, like independent and distance learning, can benefit those who don’t live near a military base.

Navigating the Bureaucracy

“Student-veterans are tired of being marginalized, that they’re a hero to be lauded or a victim to be helped,” said Matthew Amidon, a senior advisor at the George W. Bush Institute. The U.S. Marine Corps Reserve colonel urged the academy and Department of Defense (DOD) to “control the narrative” of the student-veteran experience. This includes teaching student-veterans how to navigate the DOD’s bureaucracy. “They need to understand the process and cost of earning a college degree,” Amidon continued. “Educational pathways are pathways to opportunity.”

Piloting the Future

Panelists agreed that in addition to the Department of Defense, the academy should cooperate more closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to enhance learning outcomes. VA pilot programs—“small experiments” to determine what works and what doesn’t for student-veterans—are one approach. Academic leaders are also encouraged to play a more direct role in shaping student-veteran legislation. “We have an obligation to make sure that every member of our veteran community can reach their unique, full potential,” said University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, a U.S. Army veteran.

Fostering a Sense of Community

Despite the success of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, veterans remain a minority on college campuses. Therefore, organizations like Student Veterans of America (SVA), whose 1,400 chapters represent more than 600,000 participants, are poised to support educational advancement and career growth. “These organizations also foster a sense of community,” said Kori Schake, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. University of North Dakota President Andrew Armacost (pictured) concurred, noting the “incredible collection” of leaders at the summit. “I look forward to seeing the impact that our collaboration will have on veterans and active-duty members,” added the retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general.

An Ecosystem of Exchange

A skills gap and labor shortage, combined with an impending demographic cliff, is forcing academia, the military and the workforce to rethink how to collaborate. “We need a nonlinear ecosystem of exchange, where each sector takes a noncompetitive approach to human capital development,” advised Brent Orrell, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. University of Nebraska System President Ted Carter (pictured) compared the situation to a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which, despite its size, can complete a 360-degree rotation in two minutes. “The pandemic has been an accelerant, proving that we can adapt quickly,” said the retired U.S. Navy vice admiral.

Conveying Best Practices

Evaluating and redesigning student-veteran programs is a seemingly never-ending process—one that according to RAND Corporation Senior Fellow Bernard Rostker G’66, G’70, should be nimble and agile. “There’s a problem of status quo among higher ed and the military,” he said, adding that the Department of Defense’s personnel system hasn’t “fundamentally changed” since it was put in place in 1948. Megan Andros (pictured), director of veterans affairs at The Heinz Endowments, agreed with his assessment. “All of us need to be part of the solution,” said Andros, whose foundation supports policy analysis and program evaluations at Syracuse University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families. “There’s a lot of reliable and well-researched data to inform how to proceed.”