Are colleges and universities failing our veterans?

Colleges and universities have long been known as places of tolerance and understanding. They have been the first battlegrounds in many of the fights for equality in this country. Colleges are places were movements for civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights flourished and grew and helped change our culture.

However, today’s colleges are also the places where blatant discrimination against one particular group continues to be tolerated – our American combat veterans.

Speak with any college professor about a minority group on that campus. They will tell you exactly what to do, or what they’ve done, to educate themselves and to make those students more comfortable. Whether it is students of color, the LGBT students, students from foreign countries or students with disabilities, I guarantee you that professor has done their homework, and has made accommodations to welcome and include that student into their classroom.

Now ask those same professors about their combat veterans. What have they done to understand these students, to meet their unique educational needs, to welcome them into their classroom? According to the veterans I know, the professors who have taken the time to know and understand them are in the minority, but much appreciated.

Since the Post 9/11 GI Bill the VA estimates it has provided educational benefits for over 773,000 veterans and their families. That amounts to more than $20 million dollars collected by our colleges and universities. How many of these veterans are having positive experiences? How many of them are graduating from college? How many of them are then going on to meaningful careers?

These are questions that must be answered and data that often seems hard to come by. Recent studies show that more and more veterans are finding success in college, but only with colleges that are willing to accommodate their unique needs. More often than not, what they need is found on smaller, community college campuses rather than larger four-year institutions. While this may be the solution for many of them, often the programs that translate into much-needed high paying job can only be found on larger campuses.

In a 2012 story, NPR estimated the number of veterans attending college under the GI Bill at over 860,000 and highlighted some of the challenges they face. Many of the challenges are similar to those many non-traditional students face; such as having been out of the classroom many years, or trying to go to school while working full-time or caring for a family. Many universities and professors, who are used to teaching students directly out of high school, are simply unable or unwilling to accommodate the needs of adult learners. Arbitrary rules meant to control unruly groups of young twenty-somethings simply don’t work for adults who may need to have a cellphone on, or can’t make an assignment deadline or exam, because of a job issue or a sick child.

Veterans, however, especially combat veterans, face additional challenges. The biggest is often discrimination. Many colleges and universities, known for being some of the most liberal places on earth, seem unwilling to try to understand or respect members of a more conservative military culture. The military is, without a doubt, a culture unto itself. Understanding these students and this culture is just as vital for educators as learning about students from other countries or other religious backgrounds.

You don’t have to agree with the politics of your military students but you do have to respect them, for their sacrifice, for their hard work, for their diverse knowledge base and for their service. This is where you put that little yellow ribbon you had on your bumper during the war into real action.

Combat veterans with medical issues or PTSD and anxiety must also be accommodated in the same way we have always made sure to accommodate students with learning disabilities, or physical handicaps. Many college disability centers simply have not taken the time to understand these needs or learn the skills needed to work with this population. There is no excuse for this. There is plenty of information out there.

Many people perceive veterans; especially combat veterans, as scary and violent. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, if your school were to actually have a violent incident, it is these men and women that would literally throw themselves in harm’s way to save everyone else. Look up all the mass shootings and violent incidents in the United States in the last few decades; civilians committed almost all of them. Remember, we always fear the thing we don’t understand, so try to understand.

The same experiences that make veterans so different from traditional students can also be used to enrich your classroom, and the experiences of both teachers and traditional students. These are men and women who have traveled the world and have studied other cultures by living in the midst of them. These are selfless, self-sacrificing individuals who entered the military to truly make a difference in the world. That knowledge, care and commitment, directed in positive ways can truly transform a campus community.

So how can you help? If you read none of the links attached to this article, I encourage you to read this one. The National Association for Veteran’s Program Administrators has put out a comprehensive set of guidelines on how best to serve the veterans in your college community.

Most of all, remember, that every veteran is someone’s father, mother, sibling, daughter or son. One of them is mine and as I’ve discovered, the best way to find out how to help them is to simply ask: “What can I do to help?” They deserve at least that.


Karen Foley

About Karen Foley

Karen Foley, has successfully been writing her blog for the BDN since May 2011. By successful, she means a few people read it, and she has not been sued, stalked or fired since starting it.