Washington Watch: Serving America’s veterans

Military-affiliated participants pose during Military Appreciation Day at Middlesex County College in New Jersey. (Photo: Tom Peterson/MCC)

November 11 marks Veterans’ Day, a day that reminds us of our military veterans, as well as active duty military personnel, who look to our colleges to pursue their academic and career goals.

Veterans account for about 5 percent of community college students, and nearly 6.5 percent when including active military service members and reservists.

Community colleges are proud to serve our military and veteran students.

“We are grateful for what they have given us, and we want to repay that debt by supporting them,” said Juston Pate, president of Elizabethtown Community and Technical College in Kentucky. “Our students and programs also benefit from the experience and work ethic our military and veteran students bring to our classrooms. Traditional students have the opportunity to interact with and learn from the life lessons of military students.”

New ‘Forever GI Bill’ benefits

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has long supported legislation that helps veterans and active duty military personnel access and be well-served by community college programs. Last year, Congress passed the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, a measure designed to expand the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Provisions of the newer bill, known as the Forever GI Bill, redefined eligibility and removed a 15-year cap for these educational benefits. It also increased financial assistance for National Guard and Reserve members.

As of August 1, the Forever GI Bill restored educational benefits for student veterans who had to stop their studies due to school closures (such as those by for-profits Corinthian and ITT Tech colleges). It also extended eligibility for full GI benefits to all Purple Heart recipients. Previously, a veteran had to be medically retired from the military or have completed three years of active duty service to qualify for these benefits.

Additionally, the Forever GI Bill expands the Yellow Ribbon program to include surviving spouses and children of service members who were killed in the line of duty.

Advocating for better delivery

In recent months, AACC has worked with other higher education associations to ensure more timely delivery of GI Bill benefits to student veterans.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will hold a hearing November 15 to address continuing system failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs when it comes to processing GI Bill claims. Some of these computer system issues stem from changes made in the law that took effect in August. In particular, the law changed how the monthly housing allowance was calculated. Instead of using the zip code of the college where the student was enrolled, the new formula relies on the zip code of the campus where the GI Bill recipient physically attends most classes.

The average age of veterans attending community colleges is 34, most of whom are male (75 percent) and white (61 percent), according to U.S. Department of Education data. About 16 percent of community college student veterans are African-American and 16 percent are Latino.

More than one out of four (27 percent) of veteran students report some type of disability, with the most common being attention deficit disorder (26 percent). They also cite suffering from depression (15 percent), orthopedic or mobility impairment (13 percent), anxiety (11 percent) and traumatic brain injury (8 percent).

Program profiles

Community colleges across the country have programs specifically for student veterans, from job training to providing centers and other services. Most also honor their veterans and others in the community on Veterans’ Day with various events. Below are a few examples of all of these.

In Maryland, Montgomery College offers a Combat2College program to provide academic support, social opportunities, resources, and services for veterans and active and reserve service members. In addition to mentoring and referral services, the program offers dedicated open gym hours, yoga classes and guided meditation sessions. The college also has designated a space for women veterans.

Houston Community College (HCC) enrolls about 4,200 active duty military and veterans annually, with many of those students enrolled in high-demand programs, such as business and information technology. Last year, HCC received a $450,000 College Credit for Heroes Grant to help student veterans capitalize on their prior military experiences, translating skills, training and experiences into academic credit for coursework.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, military service personnel dominate three fields: mechanical and repair; engineering, science and technical; and transportation and material handling.

In New Jersey, Middlesex County College hosted a Military Appreciation Day on November 7, with activities that included a Marine Corps Mobile Museum and a mobile counseling center for veterans. The college also held a blood drive and packed supplies for troops overseas.

In California, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District this week announced expanded services and new facilities for its nearly 1,700 student veterans. The two colleges have each secured $200,000 in state grants to expand outreach and services to veterans and their dependents. In addition, both colleges plan to nearly triple the size of their veterans resource centers.

California community colleges enroll about 80,000 veterans and active duty service members each year.

About the Author

Laurie Quarles
is a legislative resource associate at the American Association of Community Colleges.