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Community college leaders and other stakeholders listen to Curtis Coy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs during an AACC dialogue on serving veterans. (Click here for more photos from the meeting.)
Photo: Matthew Dembicki
National efforts to increase veterans’ college completion is getting a big push from the White House, which is looking for ways to work with higher education institutions to encourage military service personnel and veterans to attain postsecondary credentials, such as degrees or certificates.
The Obama administration initially focused on college access for military personnel by expanding benefits through the new GI Bill and revising education and training programs for veterans, such as the Transition Assistance Program.
The administration will continue to work on those programs and will put increased emphasis on college completion, said Lt. Col. Archie Bates III, a White House fellow in the Office of the First Lady. He participated in an American Association of Community Colleges meeting this week on how community colleges can better serve veterans.
Over the next several years, about one million military personnel will transition to civilian life, Bates said. Community colleges have played an important role in helping in that transition through developing centers to serve veterans, where they can interact with other student veterans, get career and student aid counseling, and other services. The community college setting itself appeals to many veterans because they tend to serve older, working students with families, Bates noted.
An asset in the classroom
Bates encouraged colleges to not only offer focused services for veterans but to also integrate veterans into the classroom. For example, many veterans can provide first-hand experiences of concepts taught in the classroom.
“They appreciate being honored, but they also want to be seen as an asset in the classroom because of their wealth and range of experiences,” Bates said. He was also particularly interested in hearing community college presidents’ thoughts on providing college credit for prior learning experiences.
Veterans get credit for prior learning
Bates emphasized that higher education is one component of Joining Forces, the White House initiative started by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden to support service members, veterans and their families. Joining Forces addresses employment, wellness and education, which in addition to higher education includes improving the educational experience for military children in K-12 schools. More than 100 teachers’ colleges are integrating teaching military culture to prospective teachers so they can better serve such students, Bates said.
Challenges and successes
In some areas there remains a disconnect between services and veterans. For example, the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helps older veterans receive free job training for careers in high-demand fields. It is limited to 99,000 participants and the benefits run out March 31, 2014. Of the 80,000 eligible applicants, only 30,000 have so far enrolled in the training, said Curtis Coy, deputy under secretary for economic opportunity at VA. The department is encouraging the remaining 50,000 to use their benefits or consider forfeiting them so someone else can use them before they expire in a little over a year. But it’s been a challenge, Coy said.
“How do we get veterans to start using those benefits?” he said.
VA has other new programs that focus on helping veterans in college. The VetSuccess on Campus program places experienced vocational rehabilitation counselors on college campuses. They coordinate access to VA benefits while providing counseling to student veterans. The program started in 2011 on eight campuses and last year added 24 more colleges, including Salt Lake Community College (Utah), the Community College of Rhode Island, Kellogg Community College (Michigan), Washtenaw Community College (Michigan), Kalamazoo Valley Community College (Michigan), Tidewater Community College (Virginia) and Central New Mexico Community College. Another 32 colleges were recently invited to join.
Around college campuses
Participants at the AACC meeting, which included leaders from community colleges around the country, had an opportunity to share information about their veterans’ programs with federal officials and colleagues. Several of the colleges are working on prior learning assessments to offer credit for previous experiences, working with local workforce investment boards—focusing on job training for growing industries such as logistics and transportation—and creating veterans’ centers on campus that offer counseling, book loans and even professional attire for job interviews.
Two-year colleges are also creating programs to help personnel still in the services become reacquainted with school again and to earn credits, so they are more comfortable with college when they transition to civilian life.
The Veterans Upward Bound program was noted several times at the meeting as a federal program that is yielding results. Nicholas Anderson, a former Marine who manages the veterans program at Prince George’s Community College (Maryland), said Veterans Upward Bound does an exceptional job in helping vets with developmental education to prepare them for college-level work before they tap into their GI Bill and other military benefits.
“It builds veterans’ confidence to go back to college,” Anderson said.
“That’s what we need to be doing with every single veteran,” added Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College in South Carolina.
Some education advocates are concerned programs such as this one could be cut when Congress and the White House look at ways to trim federal spending. In fiscal year 2012, lawmakers appropriated $14 million for the Veterans Upward Bound program, which served 6,831 veterans across the country. On average, the 51 funded projects—located mainly at community colleges—received about $250,000.
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