Veterans' College Enrollments Swell Under Post-9/11 GI Bill
By Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, Seattle, Wash.
VANCOUVER, Wash. —
Brad Matera is an Afghan war veteran, an Army medic who got cut loose from the service last spring amid a broader downsizing of the military.
Matera, 22, looked for full-time work to support his wife and infant son, but found few prospects for a decent-paying job. So this fall, he enrolled at Clark College in Vancouver, hoping to build on his military experience to become a nurse.
“I was really hesitant at first,” Matera said. “It’s kind of a scary thought to go back to school after so much time. I psyched myself out pretty hard.”
Matera is part of a surge of veterans enrolled on campuses in Washington state and across the country, spurred by an expansion of educational benefits for those who served in the military after the 9/11 attacks.
Community colleges such as Clark, with 440 students using veterans educational benefits, are on the front lines.
In Washington, during the past four years, community colleges have enrolled 19,702 veterans — more than the combined total of four-year colleges and for-profit schools, according to a Seattle Times analysis.
At Clark, the veterans may be easy to spot. Some wear caps decorated with pins and patches from their military days, or carry their books and computers in camouflage backpacks once used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Matera and the other vets also have their own place to hang out — a resource center opened this year that offers coffee, banks of computers, and counseling from fellow veterans who can help them navigate the academic world.
The center is emblematic of renewed efforts by many colleges to help veterans succeed on campus.
Many of the veterans on campuses are married with children and have to work at least part time to support their families. They also may struggle with physical or mental wounds from war, and an uneasy transition to civilian life may be complicated by trying to fit into campus life.
Plenty of the veterans are committed to a career path and focused on gaining skills and a degree. But others aren’t sure what they want to do in school, and frequently change direction. And for some, the biggest draw may not be academics but the chance to tap into the monthly expense stipend offered veterans.
Many schools have beefed up support services that offer counseling, course planning and staff members skilled in working with the VA to secure a timely flow of tuition payments.
The Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs has organized a network of 50 Vet Corps “navigators” paid with federal funds to assist their peers. This first program of its kind nationwide now has a presence at 36 schools. Clark has two navigators.
At Clark’s Veterans Resource Center, vets also can meet up with a mental-health counselor, an Army veteran of Iraq who drops by once a week, and check in with a college staffer who works on VA education benefits.
“This is the way it should be,” said Lourdes (Alfie) Alvarado-Ramos, the director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. “A building with people and resources to actually serve veterans. It’s good business for the college and good for the veterans.”
At Clark, faculty who struggle to connect with their veteran students can also get help. Tim McPharlin, a political-science professor and an Air Force veteran, has started seminars to teach faculty more about traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other challenges veterans may face.
“We had our first training a couple of weeks ago — and the room was packed. There is a real hunger for it here,” said Edie Blakely, director of career services and veterans programs. “I think this is going to make a big difference.”
But it’s unclear how veterans are faring on campuses.
A national study released earlier this year by Student Veterans of America, based on a million records, found that just under 52 percent of veterans obtained degrees.
That’s a few percentage points less than the success rate for the overall college-student population tracked in a separate survey.
There is still no ongoing, long-term tracking of how veterans fare on campuses.
A bill introduced in the House this year would require the tracking of student outcomes by institutions receiving VA education money.
“While I firmly believe that our veterans deserve every penny of these benefits, it has become clear to me — and to most in the veteran community — that there simply have not been enough metrics to track the return on taxpayer investment through student success,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Florida, a co-sponsor of the legislation, at a hearing in May.
The GI Bill for post-9/11 veterans was passed by Congress in 2008 in a bipartisan effort to help the men and women — less than 1 percent of the nation’s population — who had fought the wars in Iran and Afghanistan.
The legislation offers 36 months of tuition for in-state students at public universities and up to $20,235 a year in tuition assistance at private schools. It also includes monthly expenses based on where veterans live and whether they have dependents.
During the first four years after the act passed, the numbers of veterans claiming these education benefits soared from under 12,000 to more than 20,000 in Washington state.
Some, like Matera, have a long academic road ahead. This quarter he is taking math, English and other basic courses he must complete before he can be considered for admittance to a four-year nursing program.
To support his family, he works weekends as a security guard to supplement the $1,440-a-month VA stipend he receives when school is session.
“My social life right now — I don’t have one,” Matera said. “We’re living with my parents right now and just trying to get back on our feet.”
Many of the veterans are older than Matera, arriving on campus after a half-decade or more of military service.
RaeLynn Reeder, who hopes to get a business degree at Clark, is a 34-year-old Army veteran of three deployments to Iraq. She came to Clark after a frustrating start to her college career trying to take online courses from home, which left her feeling too isolated. She is a frequent visitor to the resource center.
“I love coming here, it’s like the camaraderie you had in the military,” Reed said.
Another regular at the resource center is Rebecca Herren, 27, who spent six years in the Air Force as a dog handler.
Herren is studying marine biology and intends to research shark behavior when she is out of school. At Clark she has nearly finished a year packed with hard-core science courses, and she’s set to transfer next year to Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida to finish her studies.
“It’s definitely not been easy. You have to adjust. There are a lot of kids doing stupid things, like not paying attention in class,” Herren said. “You want to tell them, ‘Don’t do that, you’re going to regret that.’ It’s my staff sergeant starting to come out in me.”
Some vets struggle
Even with the financial support of the new GI Bill, there are plenty of ways for veterans to founder as students.
Some withdraw from courses because they’re struggling with grades, then find themselves billed by the VA for reimbursement of tuition fees paid out to schools. Or, if they withdraw from school, they may owe back payments to the VA for living expenses.
Mike Gibson, Veterans Affairs program specialist at Clark, said it’s common for veterans to drop out at Clark.
The resource center, while offering plenty of help, draws only about 25 to 30 veterans a week, a small percentage of those attending Clark.
Gibson said some veterans fail because they enroll at Clark primarily to tap into the monthly stipend and never get serious about their studies.
“We’re not going to allow students just to come in and use their GI Bill and get F grades every single term,” he said. “We don’t want them wasting their GI Bill.”
Other veterans are just worn down by the grind of trying to keep up with academics, family life and a job to scrape up additional cash.
“Honestly, from my own personal experience as well as talking with other veterans — I have to say life is what gets in the way most of the time,” said Josh Vance, an Air Force veteran who works as a student navigator at Clark and is studying psychology. “Juggling everything is the biggest hurdle that I hear about. And for myself, that’s the biggest thing I have to deal with.”
Matera said he won’t get discouraged even if he doesn’t pass a few of his classes.
“I think the most exciting part of my life is going to be when I get to a hospital and start working,” he said. “I like to look forward, and the future looks bright.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org Seattle Times reporters Justin Mayo and Katherine Long contributed to this story. ___