A Million Strong: Helping Them Through
University of Maryland University College
By JAMES DAO
Published: February 1, 2013
THE class was humanities, the book under discussion Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Suddenly an alarm blared and 20 students, some calm and some not, filed out of the makeshift classroom. Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan was under rocket attack, again.
The students, most of them uniformed troops, repaired to a cramped bunker where a few continued discussing the book. There, they waited for an hour until the all-clear sounded. Class was over. “We’ve been through so many of those that you grow callous to it,” Chief Warrant Officer Justin Hutchinson recalled via Skype. “For most of us, it was like a cigarette break.”
The incident typifies the untypical world of higher education for active-duty troops and veterans. This year, more than one million service members, veterans and their families will take college courses financed with federal tax dollars. Their experiences will be more complicated than those of their fresh-faced civilian peers.
As often as not, they float in and out of college like nomads, juggling deployments, families and jobs. If they are in service, they take classes at night or on weekends, studying between combat patrols and 12-hour duty schedules. If they are veterans, they are probably in their late 20s or early 30s and relearning the rules of civilian life after years of martial discipline. Some have physical injuries or mental health issues that can strain their ability to study. And with 15 years to use their post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, many will take their time graduating.
Many will be like Mr. Hutchinson, who has been taking classes for 12 years in multiple countries and is just now nearing completion of a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity through the University of Maryland University College, an arm of the University System of Maryland that has been educating troops on bases (and now online) under contract with the Pentagon since 1949.
In Washington, questions abound about how all these students are faring. The White House went so far as to issue an executive order last year in response to reports that colleges, particularly for-profits schools, were cashing in on the G.I. Bill by aggressively marketing to veterans and not providing the support they needed to complete their studies. Last month, President Obama signed into law legislation requiring colleges to be more transparent about how they serve veterans. The call to action: provide students with better information before enrolling, and get them through once they do.
It doesn’t help that figures on graduation and retention for veterans are spotty. Surveys show that a majority of colleges don’t break out the data. If they do, they don’t release it. And the government has not tracked when, or whether, military and veteran students actually graduate.
“There is very little data as relates to persistence and completion for veterans,” said Bryan J. Cook, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education. “The primary source of data for all students is one that looks at a small sample of first-time, full-time students, a group which most veterans do not fall into.”
That may soon change. In January, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a partnership with the National Student Clearinghouse, an independent agency, and the Student Veterans of America, an advocacy group, to collect data on veteran students. Federal agencies are also creating new metrics that reflect military and veteran students’ tendencies to attend multiple colleges and to take more than four to six years to graduate.
That data is becoming more crucial as Congress enters a contentious debate this year over reducing the federal deficit, a debate that may include talk of trimming spending on veterans’ education. Since the G.I. Bill took effect in 2009, 877,000 people, mainly veterans and their dependents, have received benefits costing the government $23.7 billion. More than $10 billion is expected to be spent this year on veterans, plus about $560 million on tuition assistance for active-duty troops.
So it is that Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, has been imploring veterans to “graduate, graduate, graduate,” as he recently told a conference of the Student Veterans of America in Florida. “If I sound like your dad, I am. I’m paying most of your bills.”
The question remains: What works?
With the flood of veterans onto campuses and online, colleges of all types — public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, virtual and brick-and-mortar — are setting up an array of services. They are hiring specialized counselors, opening centers, and offering vets-only classes. “We know institutions across the country are increasing support services,” said Meg Mitcham, director of veterans programs at the American Council on Education. “We don’t know the effectiveness of those programs and services.”
Still, many initiatives have one principle at heart: that veterans have a common bond of language and experience, and sharing it can ease the transition and so improve chances of staying the course. Just as campuses provide a way station for adolescents moving into adulthood, they play a crucial role in reintegrating service members into civilian life.
THE WALLS of Veteran House, the veterans residence at San Diego State University, are plastered with military memorabilia: flags from Iraq and Afghanistan beside photos of present and former residents on tour on the streets of Baghdad, Kabul and Mosul. A bulletin board is pinned with badges and braids, and above the front door hang uniforms donated by residents from every wing of the armed forces.
It sits on Fraternity Row, somewhat incongruously for a house for older students “who don’t want to hang out and get drunk every night,” said Gwen Notestine, the university’s senior director of development. Six three-bedroom units overlook a courtyard draped with a camouflage net and equipped with the usual dorm paraphernalia: a barbecue, a smoker and picnic tables that have seen their fair share of both revelry and emotion.
“Sometimes you’ll see two vets out here, and you’ll see that one of the guys is crying,” said Adam Goodson, 32, who is studying psychology after serving nine years in the Marine Corps. “We’ll just say: ‘Keep inside, leave those guys alone. This guy needs someone to talk to.’ ”
In the common area, Thursday night is movie night, a double bill of comedy or horror, accompanied by pizza and maybe a few cans of beer. Upstairs, there’s an air hockey table, pool table and arcade machine where veterans can unwind, gradually getting used to life as a civilian.
“It’s definitely nice to be around a bunch of guys who’ve been in the same situation, chewed the same dirt, been around the block,” said 24-year-old Andrew Lovick, who served for four years in the Marines. “We’re the same demographic. It’s kind of hard relating to someone who’s 18 and their parents are paying for everything. You’ve been to Afghanistan and stuff and someone’s like, ‘Oh, my God, my dad won’t pay the phone bill!’”
San Diego State, in a city with one of the heaviest concentrations of veterans in the country, has one of the earliest and most extensive college programs, including special mentoring for engineering majors, veterans-only classes and, the heart of its program, an endowed center in the student services building. While the university’s data sample is small, veterans as a group seem to perform a bit better than its general population.
A 2011 report by the American Council on Education, “Promising Practices in Veterans’ Education,” found that services that made veterans feel at home on campus seemed to make a difference. It cited training faculty in military culture and in identifying the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, as well as specialized academic advising and counselors to handle questions about the G.I. Bill and other federal benefits. Also important was having all this under one roof. And so campuses from Minnesota State to the University of Southern Florida to the University of Alabama have veterans centers.
When students walk into San Diego’s Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center, they are immediately greeted by a veteran who can direct them to the appropriate service. The lounge is known as the Bunker, a place to play video games and to swap stories military and academic.
Mr. Lovick explains the importance of a veterans community: “We try to be our brother’s keeper, just look out for each other,” he said. “Just saying, ‘Hey, have you done your homework?’ ”
Travis L. Martin is a driving force behind the veterans movement at Eastern Kentucky University, whose vet population has more than doubled since 2010, to more than 1,200. A college dropout before two tours of duty in Iraq, he graduated with honors and now teaches there. As an undergraduate, he formed a student veterans organization and lobbied for better services; as a graduate student, he introduced an orientation course for incoming vets, encouraging them to write about their war experiences. He later published those essays in a journal.
He is also an adviser on a program in which incoming veterans take math, English and other courses together. The program has an average retention rate of 85 percent. But such segregated courses are not for everyone, he acknowledged. “Some feel as if it will isolate them from the greater community,” he said. “Others might feel as if they need a break from military culture for a while.”
Mr. Martin, 28, is working to expand a veterans studies program aimed at equipping students, vet and nonvet, with the knowledge to improve services and help with the transition. A new minor links a course he teaches, “Introduction to Veterans Studies,” with others on subjects like war in literature, and politics and terrorism. Of the 17 students in his intro course last semester, only four were veterans. The students did research projects on issues including military mental health problems, the history of obscure wars and veterans in popular culture. When the projects were done, the class opened the presentations to the entire campus.
To Mr. Martin, the presentations were an example of how college can help veterans return to society, not only by making them feel at home but also by bringing them into meaningful contact with nonveterans. “I’ve learned that creating community was key for the veterans,” he said. “Those relationships will keep them in school.”
JOHN L. BARBATO, 60, exemplifies the global reach of the University of Maryland University College. For 22 years, he has taught marketing and finance for the university on five continents, including four times in Afghanistan. Last spring, he taught a management course in Kandahar and gave four-day seminars at combat outposts around the country, including for a special operations team.
On several occasions, he recalled, his students received cellphone calls before dashing out the door to waiting helicopters. Despite such distractions, his combat-zone students often seemed more focused than his students in Germany, where he is based. “One student told me: ‘I work 16-hour days, I walk the perimeter and I’m scared,’” he said. “‘But for three hours I get to come to your class and we talk about Walmart or McDonald’s, and it just takes my mind off of what I’m going through.”
Though University College has classes on bases around the world and at its main campus outside Washington, a majority of its 50,000 military students — active-duty service members, veterans and their families — take classes online.
It’s a pivotal time for the university. Some of its contracts to educate troops will be up this year. It has faced fierce competition for students from for-profit schools. And when its president stepped down unexpectedly last year amid increased spending on marketing, it raised questions. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions was interested particularly in whether the university was spending excessively on recruiting veterans and military, the very criticism leveled at for-profit schools. “When you are serving adults, you have to reach the adult where the adult is,” the current president, Javier Miyares, said, explaining why 7 percent of the budget goes to marketing.
After a series of exchanges, the committee ended its review, apparently satisfied.
The university reports a five-year graduation rate of 53 percent for military students who transferred in with at least nine credits, but it has only recently started tracking veterans’ progress.
If a key to keeping veterans in school is building community, online courses face particular challenges. Without a vet center how do you foster camaraderie? How do you help with post-traumatic stress on a virtual campus?
Two counselors are assigned full time to University College’s Washington campus, part of a Veterans Affairs initiative that places counselors on 32 campuses around the country.
Shonda McLaughlin, who has a doctorate in rehabilitation research and education, was sitting recently in the small office she shares at University College with her fellow counselor, where she fields phone calls and e-mails about, say, applying for disability benefits or, once, finding a place to live for a temporarily homeless student. “Initially developing that rapport can be difficult,” she said. “But I believe whatever I do face to face I can do online.”
Among efforts to keep students from quitting, the university offers a special orientation program for veterans. Once a month prospective and new students can get a taste of the virtual classroom to see if it’s for them. Over five days, they test-drive a course with a mock syllabus, get tips on turning in assignments and interact with counselors and other veterans. Late last year, the university added the Veterans Club, a social media site on which students can share advice among themselves.
Veterans trust the advice of other veterans more than civilians’, Gregory Barber said. After 20 years in the Air Force, he should know. While deployed in the United States, Korea, England and Germany, he took courses online, on bases and at community colleges. Now 47, he is working as a military contractor and studying with University College for a master’s in cybersecurity. “A lot of veterans are afraid to go to school,” he said. “They’ve been in the military so long, they don’t know if they can do the schoolwork. It helps them to talk to veterans who have done it. It makes them think: ‘He did it. Maybe I can do it.’ ”
It can be difficult for online schools to form student organizations, something experts say is critical to recreating the camaraderie of the small-unit culture of the military. Last year, the Student Veterans of America revoked charters for 26 for-profit schools, many of them online, after learning their chapters were run by administrators instead of, as required, student veterans.
With online students so geographically scattered and time constrained, even the nonprofit University College struggles to get a group going. The key is a leader who will keep it vital, and University College hopes it has found that person in Mr. Barber. He has begun contacting a small group of veterans about meet-ups beginning this spring, in Washington and online. “Some veterans need a place,” he said. “They’re waiting for it.”