Veteran students and degree completion: how are they faring?
Column as seen in Charleston Business May 2016
Over the past five years, the veteran student population has become one of the most important constituencies in higher education. Many institutions have created programs, policies, and recruiting strategies to attract this group, and several colleges and universities have been quite successful in enhancing their veteran student enrollment. There is little doubt that the number of veterans returning from deployments wishing to further their education has grown.
According to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 2000 and 2012 nearly one million veterans and military service members received education benefits through the VA. Veteran students are typically older than other students, and nearly half are married and have famlies, making them an especially reliable poplutatuion for college and universities to recruit. In addition to being older than traditional students, nearly two-thirds of veteran students are the first in their family to attend college. This is significantly higher than the percentage of non-military students (43 percent) who are considered "first generation" students.
Veteran students are also more likely to have enrolled in college at some other point in time. According to a 2013 study, the average veteran student enters their most current institution with about 28 credit hours, making them an academic sophomore upon acceptance. Such an enhanced starting point greatly improves degree completion, particularly for those who have family obligations and must manage taking classes along with work constraints, and family commitments.
Veteran students are also more likely to enroll in online or distance learning. This is an interesting development, particularly as it related to for-profit institutions (which are different from state insitutions like The Citadel or Clemson), many of whom have online degree programs. This for-profit section of the higher education market has been highly criticized for some of its misleading and exploitative practices; however, for-profit are popular among veterans because of the flexibility of scheduling, small class sizes, and convenient locations. And despite the documented unscrupulous practices by some for-profit, online providers, evidence shows they can be effective. According to a recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, some data indicates that for-profits can be more successful in student retention than community colleges.
While this remains controversial, with many for-profits falling far short on meeting successful student learning outcomes, some institutions are leveraging technology and integrating best practices in higher education to level the playing field with on-campus experiences.
Additionally, despite some media reports of high veteran dropout rates, the data indicates that the majority of veteran students are successful in completing their degrees. According to a 2014 study by the Student Veterans of America, about half of the veterans who pursued either vocational training or an academic degree from 2012 - 2013 under the GI Bill completed their program of study. In this particular study, the completion rate in 2011 was 51.7 percent which is lower than the four-year graduation rate for younger, non-veteran peers (59 percent). A better benchmark would be to use veteran students compared to other non-traditional students. Using those numbers, veteran students have higher completion rates than other non-traditional students.
Completion rates of veteran students also vary by branch of the military, with Air Force veterans having the highest completions rates (67 percent) followed by Army veterans (47 percent) and Marine Corps veterans (45 percent). Part of the explanation for these differences, according to some experts, involves the stressors relating to combat—given that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely ground combat experiences, a greater demand was placed on ground forces, the physical and emotional impact of which may account for the additional time needed to complete a degree. Thus, while it may take veterans longer to complete a degree, the challenges they face are different and, in some cases, more formidable, than for the average college student. As many experts point out, the delay in degree completion should not necessarily be used in a negative way when assessing veterans, rather it should be used as a marker of their perserverance and discipline.
Robert Hartmann McNamara, Ph.D., is Associate Provost and Dean of The Citadel Graduate College (CGC). The Citadel serves approximately 150 veteran students through evening undergraduate and graduate level programs under the CGC umbrella. Beginning in the fall of 2016, five Citadel graduate degrees will be available online in 39 states and overseas.