By James Craig, Associate Teaching Professor and Chair, Department of Military and Veteran Studies, University of Missouri St. Louis
College is tough. College for student-veterans is tougher.
That’s because, in addition to the typical challenges that all students face as they navigate the path to earning their college degrees, student-veterans also are coping with transitioning back to civilian life.
And to make matters worse, the many valuable educational and tactical experiences that student-veterans gain while serving their country often don’t translate to credit toward a college degree.
As a veteran myself, I’m proud to be part of a university whose administration recognizes the importance of facilitating student-veterans’ higher education success. I’m equally proud to co-chair an MCMC work group examining articulation of academic credit with colleagues from the Midwest. With the help of funders like USA Funds®, this 13-state collaborative through the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) is working to translate into college credentials the competencies that veterans have acquired through military training and experience.
Today, as we pause to honor veterans for their service, I challenge all institutions to commit to streamlining student-veterans’ paths to success in college and career. It’s a tall order, given that many postsecondary schools currently don’t measure college credit in a way that acknowledges veterans’ prior educational experiences.
But if we can recognize the prior learning of student-veterans — and award college credit for it — then we’ll be putting veterans on a shorter path to earning the degrees to transition to the next chapter in their lives. And by making it clear to veterans that their military experience is valued on campus, we’ll be encouraging a sense of connection that helps students thrive, persist and graduate.
What can institutions do now to find ways to recognize military educational experience? And how can we help ensure that student-veterans have the best chance to succeed in higher education? Here are three ways to start:
1. Be open to ideas. A number of postsecondary schools have implemented outstanding programs and practices for assessing the prior learning of student-veterans. Reach out for help from other schools and from organizations like MCMC. The Valuing Military Learning guide from MCMC includes helpful instruction, program profiles, student testimonials, and links to resources. What works on another campus might not be an exact fit for your school, but you may be able to adjust that institution’s practices to meet your needs.
2. Understand your veterans. Don’t assume that you know who your institution’s student-veterans are and the obstacles they face just because you read the latest magazine or blog. Head to your own school’s institutional research office to learn how old your veterans are, what they’re majoring in, and their graduation rates. When we took some time with the institutional research office at UMSL, we learned that, of our student-veterans who were dropping out, more than half were doing so in the first two semesters. So we began assigning faculty mentors to our student-veterans as soon as they arrived, and we soon saw first-year retention rates go up by 25 percent.
3. Go beyond student services. Many institutions provide student services for veterans. Remember that education is at the core of the student experience. At UMSL we have an entire department devoted to the academic success of student-veterans and the study of the veteran experience. But even if your institution doesn’t have such a department, you can have faculty who are veterans who volunteer their time or are funded in some way to work with student-veterans.
By matching military experiences with college credit, and then assisting our student-veterans throughout their educational experience, we’ll be providing the smoother path to college and career that our veterans deserve.