He sat across the table from me sobbing, his emotional support dog lay loyally at his side. The former Army Ranger was telling me stories of how his friends were burned alive, how his unit had been ambushed. I was someone who would listen to him, and I was someone there to help him.
I meet with a lot of veterans, I email with them, they call me from all corners of the globe. For the past five years I’ve built the veteran student recruitment model for the University of Colorado Boulder from the ground up. As a candidate for Regent of the University of Colorado, an Assistant Director of Admissions for the University of Colorado Boulder, and the brother and son of veterans I feel uniquely situated to bring to light some of the issues veterans are facing with respect to higher education.
…many of our veterans are duped into paying more for a lower quality education.
Foremost, it is important to understand that the Post-9/11 GI Bill is perhaps the single greatest educational funding opportunity our country has seen since the original GI Bill. This bill covers the entire cost of tuition at any public university, provides a generous monthly living stipend, pays for over $1000 in books and supplies each year, and offers significant funding for any tutoring a student might need. These benefits are good for up to 36 pro-rated months of education (a student can also apply for up to 12 additional months for a total 48 lifetime months of benefits); effectively making this is a full ride scholarship at any public university.
Despite this bonanza of money floating around out there, of the ten colleges that receive the most Post 9/11-GI Bill funding — eight are for profit colleges. Yes, eight. All told for-profit colleges rake in nearly $2-billion per year in GI Bill funding. What is more, these institutions often charge more than what the GI Bill covers and then send their students back to the federal government to borrow money to cover the rest of the cost. Effectively, many of our veterans are duped into paying more for a lower quality education. This should make us angry — angry that our tax dollars are flowing to devious institutions and lining the pockets of people with dubious morals. And it should make us even angrier that our service men and women are being preyed upon.
As an admission officer at a major public university, I have implored the administration to make our campus more accessible to these students. We could waive application fees, make our admission standards more holistic, establish services and support programs to help these men and women make a smooth transition, and actually go to where they are and recruit on the bases. As with most issues pertaining to veterans there is no shortage of people claiming to support the cause, but when the time comes to back it up and actually do something — not much ever happens.
“Why bother really recruiting military students when we can invest our resources into getting international students who pay way higher tuition rates?”
This is not to say that the University of Colorado does a bad job of serving veterans. In fact, President Bruce Benson recently profiled the extensive efforts of the university to serve veterans and the broader military community. In 2012 I founded Military Student Day a program that has helped hundreds of veterans and their family members learn more about CU-Boulder. Currently, there are over 4,000 veterans enrolled across the four University of Colorado campuses — a majority of which are at the Colorado Springs campus. The Boulder campus alone brought in over $12.5-million last year in GI Bill payments. And all four campuses have been recognized as military friendly schools — placing the four campuses in the top 20% of all schools nationally for serving veterans. In fact, I helped complete the process for CU-Boulder to be designated “Military Friendly” when I served as the veteran and military liaison. But I want to be more than friendly. I want to be the number one destination for veterans. I want to be the place every student with a full-ride to go to school wants to go.
One big issue where little movement has been made by the university system is on prior learning. The American Council on Education (an organization listing the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University as board members) has evaluated nearly every known military training and made recommendations as to how those courses should transfer to colleges for credit. Yet despite this, it is common for veterans to get credit for the equivalent of one college class at the university where I work. Just one class, and it’s for, ironically, basic training.
“Why give credit away to veterans when they can get others to pay for it?”
I’ve spoken to hundreds of veterans and told them that they will get little to no credit for their military service. Quite frankly — it’s a slap in the face to them. An implicit statement by the university that we do not value what these men and women have done for us. That we are more interested in taking in a few thousand dollars in tuition than actually recognizing their contribution to our country in a meaningful way. That we are not concerned about getting them enrolled in quality education programs so that they can transition out of the service and into productive civilian life.
The part that frustrates me the most on the prior learning issue is that faculty and administrators take such a short run view of the situation. They say and think things like: “Why give credit away to veterans when they can get others to pay for it?” “Why take the time to evaluate these military trainings for transfer credit when I have better things to do?” “Why bother really recruiting military students when we can invest our resources into getting international students who pay way higher tuition rates?”
Well, to me, there is one and only one reason why these men and women deserve our respect and attention. They served us. They made a commitment to all of us. A commitment up to and beyond the cost of their lives that they would defend us, fight for us, and, if needed, die for us.
Therefore, as Regent I would take the following actions to better serve our veterans:
- Waive application and confirmation fees for veterans accross all CU campuses. These only serve as barriers to these students applying and committing to our institutions and the revenue they generate (less than $50,000) is paltry in comparison to the potential revenue we could tap into (CU processed 12,500,000 in GI Bill payments last year alone). As of now no other university in the state waives application fees for veterans. At CU-Boulder we do, however, waive application fees for talented and/or low income students to increase applications from those student. Should those students come to CU we often provide them discounts by way of scholarships and grants. Veterans are already coming to us with a full ride and thus waiving the fee for them would generate more potential revenue than it does already for talented and/or low income students.
- Adopt system-wide a policy for veterans to gain college credit for their military training. A good policy already exists at the University of Colorado Denver campus. It allows veterans to apply for up to 33 credit hours of college coursework (roughly one year’s worth of work) based on their prior military service.
- Meet veteran students where they are and go to the bases to recruit service members. International students are great, but they are very expensive to recuit. Certainly they pay more in tuition, but I think those who served us in the military deserve more of the benefit of public education than those we are bringing in to generate larger marginal revenues. Military students would not be very expensive to recruit either, as many of the cities we are already recruiting in have sizable military populations.
- Invest in the reources that these students need to be successful in their transition to life as a student: academic advising, enhanced veteran services, and career services for veterans to help them make a successful transition from school to the work force.
- Build online educational platforms that allow servicemen and servicewomen to reap the benefits of a CU education no matter where they are stationed across the globe. This would not only allow us to get veteran students engaged with the university but also allow the university to reach out to active duty service members building a relationship we could enhance when they transition out of the service. The University of Maryland University College is the leader in this space and in 2014 enrolled 54,000 active-duty service members, veterans, and dependents of veterans world wide. In the fall of 2015, CU had just 61,016 student enrolled across all four campuses.
It is no understatement to say that the for-profit college industry is looked down upon by traditional higher education. But they’ve figured something out much faster than their often condescending cousins lofted in the ivory tower of academic privilege. They have figured out that every vet is an opportunity to tap into a new revenue stream. And in a world of declining state revenues for colleges across the country (and especially here in Colorado where we are on track to divest completely from higher education by 2025) this is just another sign that our colleges and universities cannot help themselves.
There are so many reasons to want veterans in our learning environments. They are disciplined. They are mature. They are diverse. They have a full ride to go to school. They will give our campuses the feel good stories administrators crave. But despite all of this I often hear people say they are afraid of veterans, say that they are worried that they will be a burden to our communities and to our services. Say things like — “these guys are ticking time bombs.” To them I say, veterans will make our campuses safer. Veterans will make our campuses more well-rounded. Veterans will make our campuses even better than they are today.
But this was also a student who did something few people ever do — become a Navy Seal.
To the detractors I tell the story of a former special forces member who I helped get admitted to the College of Engineering. This was an applicant whose high school transcript was littered with F’s, whose ACT scores were marginal. But this was also a student who did something few people ever do — become a Navy Seal. I ran into the student after his first semester. He was proud to report he had a 4.0 GPA and had made the Dean’s list. Then there is Marine Corps Seargent Tyler Chittick who served with my brother as a mortar man. Tyler called me one day and told me his plan to come to CU, get a degree, and gain a comission as an officer. I am proud to say I helped Sergeant Chittick pursue his dreams, and I will stop at nothing to help any other veteran student that comes to me for help. The Army Ranger from the story above? He’s at CU taking classes and has been for the past year-and-a-half.
The University needs to take more drastic measures. Over 1-million men and women are expected to leave the service in the next few years. That’s a lot of people with potentially full-ride scholarships to go to school, a lot of people that deserve our help, a lot of people that can use education to make America an even better place to live. But more importantly, we have the opportunity to lead the nation. We could easily become a university known throughout the military community as truly serving veteran students. And we would see the benefits of such good public service for generations to come.