College is a different kind of battle for veterans

January 1, 2011

“I’m 25...I’m not here to party; I’m here to work.”

This is how one student introduces himself to his tutors each semester at a private non-profit higher education institution in the US. He also mentions something else that sets him apart from his peers: he is a veteran of the armed forces.

The undergraduate, whose comments are recorded in a recent report for the American Council for Education (ACE), is one of 300,000 US veterans who have benefited from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which has seen the biggest overhaul of higher education benefits for military personnel in the country since the Second World War.

Passed into law last August, the bill extends the benefits that were previously available under the Montgomery GI Bill, which came into effect in 1985.

Under the terms of the old bill, servicemen and women had to state at the point of entry into the forces that they wished to apply to receive higher education benefits at the end of their term of service.

They then paid for these benefits through salary deductions in their first year of service.

The new bill extends the benefits to any member of the forces who has served for at least 90 days since 11 September 2001 (regardless of whether or not they have indicated a desire to go on to college), as well as to veterans who have been honourably discharged.

The ACE-commissioned study examines the implementation of the bill across different states and campuses during its first year.

It details difficulties caused by delays in the processing of claims, as well as a lack of clarity over what payments are for, but also says that the Department of Veterans Affairs is improving the scheme’s administration.

Just as important as financial assistance is the way in which military veterans integrate into the academy.

The psychological effects of war were highlighted late last year by the case of Charles Whittington, a student at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, Maryland, who was suspended after writing an essay in which he detailed his “addiction” to killing.

Although he qualified the statement, saying that he “knows how to keep myself composed and keep order in…my mind”, concerns over campus safety led to Mr Whittington’s being barred from attending classes pending an investigation.

A college spokeswoman said: “When you look in the era of post-Virginia Tech [where 32 people were shot dead by a gunman in 2007] and the content and nature [of what Mr Whittington] wrote about in the article, it caused us concerns.”

Some observers worry that veterans’ psychological health receives too little attention, something that was raised by those interviewed for the ACE report.

“You come back from overseas and you’re just happy to be alive, and then suddenly you have to think about school work,” says one student. “It is a challenge.”

In the military, another interviewee notes, “the expectations are clear; it is very structured. But here, every professor does something different.”

Others complain of the “immaturity and sense of entitlement” of their younger peers.

But in addition to outlining the problems experienced by military veterans in higher education, the report also details ways these issues are being addressed by universities and colleges via “transition courses” and on-campus mental health services.

Early take-up of the benefits offered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill is high, and the number of former servicemen and women in US higher education is likely to increase as a result.

However, the ACE report says that they are a “population at risk” who need to be given extra support. By providing this support, the authors say, universities will be “making their mark on a new generation of returning warriors” and taking the “unique opportunity to help these individuals [make the] transition successfully into civilian life”.

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com

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