Biology society and environment sophomore Matthew Cohen, left, and fishers and wildlife junior Dan Dewey, right, study at the Veterans Transition Center in Johnston Hall on Friday, March 7, 2014. Both are veterans and go to the VTC to study and hang out with other student veterans. (Chelsea Gortmaker/MNDaily2014)

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Tracking Millions

Veteran students often have a nontraditional educational path and new data makes their academic outcomes clearer.

by Jeff Hargarten

University of Minnesota student Zac Bair enlisted in the U.S. Army to help pay for college. After three deployments in Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment and his “fair share” of combat, Bair was honorably discharged. Soon after, he enrolled at the University.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill completely covered his tuition and provided a $1,000 yearly stipend for books and an allowance for living costs. Without GI benefits, Bair said, he would likely be either working low-end jobs, living with his family, homeless or back in the military.

“It’s been a huge load off my shoulders,” he said, as he sets his sights on becoming a high school biology teacher.

Bair is among 1 million students aided in their academic ventures by the 2008 GI Bill, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The U.S. has spent more than $30 billion in financial aid since 2009 for veterans pursuing college degrees. But when it comes to finding out whether those students graduate, answers can be hard to find.

At the University, data compiled at the request of the Minnesota Daily showed the four-year graduation rate for student veterans has fallen, while the retention rate has jumped — suggesting that many are simply taking longer to graduate.

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Student veterans gather at the Veterans Transition Center in Johnston Hall to eat pizza together on Friday, March 7, 2014. The Student Veterans Association keep the space to allow students to study, hang out and connect over having similar life experiences. Student veterans say they have trouble relating to younger students in their classes. (Chelsea Gortmaker/MNDaily2014)

This falls in line with national numbers released last week, offering the most comprehensive look so far at veteran academic success. The Million Records Project, released by Student Veterans of America, shows about half of student veterans are graduating with degrees, and many are taking longer than the traditional four years to finish school – on average, veterans take about six years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“Veterans don't have a linear path to a degree," said Dr. Chris Cate, vice president of research for Student Veterans of America.

Student veterans may have jobs, families or military obligations, in addition to the challenges that come from having spent time on the battlefield. Any of these can interrupt or elongate their educational journeys, making it difficult to track their progress. This means that, as a group of students who often need the most support — and whose education is publicly funded — they can sometimes fall through the cracks.

National Veteran Degree Attainment
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 2012, News21, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Download Data
Tracking difficulties

As the first Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries started to graduate, lawmakers, media outlets, student advocacy groups and others have called for results on whether the money is serving its purpose by helping student veterans earn college degrees.

Within the Million Records Project study sample, 51.7 percent of student veterans earned a college degree or certificate, numbers higher than previously reported by various media outlets, but lower than recent estimates of nearly 70 percent.

Passed in 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill expanded educational benefits for military veterans serving after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The bill allows the federal government to pay tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and book stipends. The Montgomery GI Bill and the Minnesota GI Bill also provide support to active duty members and Minnesota veterans, respectively. In Minnesota, there are about 18,800 veteran students across 181 schools, according to News21 research, and more than $244.5 million awarded in GI Bill funds.

The Million Records study examined veterans using government education benefits, including a million Montgomery GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries. After excluding those still in school, the study found after sifting through 788,915 records that about 15 percent of beneficiaries got associate’s degrees, about 24 percent attained bachelor’s and about 8 percent got master’s.

But elsewhere, information available about veteran students is less consistent.

The University does not currently have a comprehensive tracking system in place for veteran graduation and retention rates, but Jennifer Peterson, assistant director of University Veterans Services, said the office is actively looking to better grasp the data.

The Minnesota Daily requested information from all Big Ten schools, most of which didn’t start tracking veterans as a population until the past few years, while others had very little data readily available and had to compile it.

Other Big Ten schools that shared the most detailed data were the University of Illinois, Penn State, the University of Iowa and Purdue University, and most painted a general picture of veteran success.

Tracking veteran students presents a number of challenges for universities, and there is no uniform method. The University of Minnesota’s pool includes those who self-identify and those receiving GI Bill benefits, so some may not be counted at all. GI Bill beneficiaries aren't confined to veterans themselves either and can include family members and other dependents.

Most veterans are in categories often overlooked by university research and policies: those of nontraditional age, those going to school part time and those with mixed enrollment.

Additionally, GI Bill benefits have a 36-month limit. Because the VA uses financial awards for tracking purposes, Cate said, student veterans whose benefits run out before they graduate are counted as not finishing at all.

"There's a difference between falling off the grid and quitting academia," Cate said.

Select year for rates and student headcount

Bair said while the GI Bill's time limit helps keep him focused on graduating within four years, it may be a downside to a majority of his friends who have changed majors during their college careers.

“There’s not really wiggle room,” he said.

Tours of duty interrupt or halt academic careers, too. Many reservists were called up to serve in Middle Eastern wars between 2004 and 2009, Cate said, and they could have lost all their credits. Since 2007, at least 45 active-duty University students interrupted their education to serve military tours of duty, according to One Stop, though the numbers only represent those who reported their departure to advisers and received a tuition refund.

Tracking how many veterans actually drop out can also be difficult.

“The problem is when people drop out, they do it very quietly and just disappear,” said Andrew Friedrichs, treasurer of the Student Veterans Association. “They don't go around telling everyone.”

Nationally, there has been a push for more comprehensive and uniform tracking and transparency regarding educational services for veterans. In 2012, Congress passed the Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act, requiring colleges to share more information about how they serve veterans, mostly in an effort to combat misleading, targeted marketing by for-profit colleges. Recently, proposed legislation that would require the VA to track veteran graduation rates died in House committee.

“Inconsistent methods of collecting such information has led to confusion about the completion rates of student veterans in higher education,” the Million Records Project report said, “and without strong, empirical data, the uncertainty will persist.”

  • “A lot of vets get the short end of the stick. If athletes get priority, why not those who served our country?”

    Zach Benson - Student Veterans Association
  • “A huge issue is those coming back from active duty are dropping out.”

    Andrew Friedrichs - Student Veterans Association
  • “University culture is frustrating for some.”

    Allen Roberts - University of Iowa
  • “With the age gap you can’t relate to the other students. It’s an alternate universe.”

    Dusten Retcher - Student Veterans Association
Helping veterans graduate on time

At the University of Minnesota, fewer veterans are dropping out than in previous years but are taking longer than four years to graduate.

Among student veterans, the four-year graduation rate in recent years fell from 48 percent to 36.2 percent, while the retention rate jumped from 22 percent to 42.6 percent. The six-year veteran graduation rate at the University is 72 percent, close to the 75.7 rate among the general student population and in line with the Million Records Project findings. The four-year graduation rate among the general University population is 59.1 percent.

While the University’s data does show declines, a single year’s drop does not necessarily describe a trend, according to One Stop and the Office of Institutional Research, and the combined graduation and retention rates suggest that student veterans are sticking around.

Click Big Ten School for estimated veteran headcounts

Priority registration is a big issue for the Student Veterans Association on campus, said Zach Benson, the group's president, because veterans need to graduate on time but cannot always get the classes they need. He has tried working with One Stop on this and other issues but said University employees don’t listen because he’s a student worker.

“A lot of vets get the short end of the stick,” he said. “If athletes get priority, why not those who served our country?”

A 2013 Pat Tillman Foundation and Operation College Promise study said veterans wanted priority registration for classes, greater collaboration between student veteran groups and administration, more employment opportunities for graduating veterans and a separate orientation for new veteran students.

Only 37 percent of colleges with military services assist veteran students with transitioning into school, according to the Tillman report, while 47 percent provide training for faculty and staff to better address veteran concerns. Only 28 percent of those institutions have programs to help veteran and military students reignite their academic careers after absences.

The University was among the first big colleges to launch a veteran services department — which was nationally recognized in 2012 — and many other schools have since followed suit.

University Veterans Services' main focus is helping veterans understand their GI Bill benefits and to “streamline the process as much as possible,” Peterson said.

But it also works to help veterans in a number of other ways. The University has a ten-member Veterans Advisory Committee, offers orientation specially geared toward new veteran students and holds a student veterans appreciation day each year. The University’s Career Services also offers job search resources and advice for veterans. One Stop is examining a number of new initiatives geared toward veterans, including an introductory class for veterans to kick off their college careers.

Dusten Retcher, an officer with the Student Veterans Association, said the University overall is good for veterans, but "there's always room for improvement."

A USA Today ranking of the top colleges and universities for veterans included a number of Big Ten schools, with Penn State topping the list and Iowa, Indiana and Nebraska falling in the top fifteen. The University of Minnesota didn’t make the list.

A sign for the Veterans Transition Center sits tucked away in the back of Johnston B18 where the Student Veterans Association holds activities. (Jeff Hargarten)
Tackling student veteran challenges

Getting a college degree is important for many veterans to reintegrate into civilian life.

There are about 2.3 million post-9/11 veterans in the workforce nationwide, with an unemployment rate of 9 percent, according to November 2013 data from the Senate's Joint Economic Committee. In Minnesota, the post-9/11 veteran unemployment rate is 8.8 percent with about 30,000 former service members in the labor force.

But there are a number of barriers between veterans and a degree -- barriers not usually faced by their younger classmates. Those challenges include family responsibilities, rusty academic skills and lingering battlefield wounds like brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. Some combat veterans also dislike being in large crowds, a common obstacle on college campuses.

About 21 percent of those who entered the University in 2009 dropped out over the next four years — an estimated rate similar to the general student population and a decrease from a 30 percent dropout rate two years before. But it’s still an issue on the radar of campus veteran advocates.

“A huge issue is those coming back from active duty are dropping out [early in their college careers],” Friedrichs said. “It is one of our largest concerns.”

One Stop reports 913 students on the Twin Cities campus self-identify as veterans or accept GI bill benefits and estimates between 650 and 750 of those are using GI bill benefits. So, on a campus of nearly 50,000 students, veterans comprise a small population, and not all of them have GI Bill benefits or support systems helping them forward.

“University culture is frustrating for some,” said Allen Roberts, the University of Iowa's military and veterans education specialist, who works to keep veterans engaged and active in campus life while trying to “channel their inner civilian.” He said some veterans may find vocational programs better for them. But about 80 percent of student veterans are enrolled in public institutions, the Million Records Project study said, while about 11 percent are at private nonprofit schools and another 10 percent attend proprietary schools.

Having some previous college experience can make the transition easier. Bradley Hanson, a senior journalism student, spent a year and a half at the University before entering the military to help pay for school. Upon returning from more than two years at a Marine Corps base in Japan, he said he found the transition relatively simple and has used few of the veteran resources on campus.

But for Bair, the academics and social aspects were more difficult to tackle. Academics is a “perishable skill,” he said, and he took his first semester easier to get into the swing of it.

“But it just comes down to hard work,” he said, “which isn’t a big deal compared to military stuff.”

The Student Veterans Association on campus offers a place to engage and aims to help veterans navigate the challenges of civilian life at college. The association also helps out financially, offering emergency loans for veteran students experiencing financial difficulties. Originally centered in Wesbrook Hall before it was torn down, the group runs its Veterans Transition Center in the basement of Johnston Hall as a place where members can stop by, eat, socialize, kick back on a couch or study and watch movies, while also offering free printing and other services.

“Most of the services we offer are geared towards creating a social support network of peers for returning veterans that they can not only relate to but feel a sense of belonging,” said Friedrichs who served with the U.S. Navy from 2005 to 2011 in Sasebo, Japan.

“There’s pizza on Fridays,” he said.

As students who are often older than their classmates, veterans can also feel alienated from their peers.

"With the age gap, you can't relate to the other students," Retcher said. "It's an alternate universe."

Benson said the age and experience gap can make school a lonely exercise for veterans, who before entering school may get frustrated, bored, “do dumb stuff” or otherwise not have a plan for tackling college life. Now a senior human resources development major, he spent eight years in the U.S. Army, five of those overseas stationed in Germany, Korea and elsewhere. He said joining the student group has helped him and others find camaraderie in civilian life where many don’t understand their experiences.

“You don’t know what I’ve been through,” he said.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact us at any time.

Jeff Hargarten
Reporter/Interactives | jhargarten@mndaily.com

Amber Billings
Visuals Editor | abillings@mndaily.com

Chelsea Gortmaker
Photographer | cgortmaker@mndaily.com

Jeff Hargarten researched and reported this story over the course of six months in response to lingering questions about veteran academic outcomes in the U.S. overall and at various universities. Institutional data was requested from each Big Ten university while numbers from others schools were compiled from reports. National data was drawn from the Million Records Project and mined from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.