Volume 7 Issue 1, February 2021, pp. 76-86

LAY SUMMARY

Student Veterans are enrolling in college at increasingly rapid rates after separating from the military. Colleges and universities are urged to evaluate and redesign programs targeted to specifically support Veterans. The aim of the current review is to provide a comprehensive examination of the existing literature regarding best practices in serving U.S. student Veterans in higher education. Concrete suggestions related to the implementation, assessment, and institutionalization of best practices are provided.

Introduction: Student Veterans are enrolling in college at increasingly rapid rates after separating from the military. Institutions of higher education are urged to evaluate and redesign programs targeted to support Veterans’ unique attributes, because they differ from civilian students in many aspects. The aim of the current scoping review is to provide a comprehensive examination of the existing literature regarding best practices in serving U.S. student Veterans in higher education and to provide suggestions for the implementation, assessment, and institutionalization of best practices. Methods: The methodology for the current scoping review, based on the framework by Arksey and O’Malley, included a structured and iterative design to allow accuracy and replication of the review process. The authors conducted a scoping review of existing scholarly and grey literature on programs provided by U.S. colleges and universities to support student Veterans and enhance their retention, persistence, and success in higher education. Results: The current study addresses three specific areas: the extent to which U.S. colleges and universities are providing targeted support for their student Veteran population, the types of programs and services that colleges and universities are providing to students who have served in the U.S. military, and the current data that exist regarding the effectiveness of the programs and services offered by colleges and universities. Discussion: Current findings of existing programs and services are examined and categorized under the 8 Keys to Veterans’ Success. Suggested implications and future directions, as they relate to best practices for student Veteran programming in higher education, are discussed.

Introduction : Les vétéran(e)s reprennent de plus en plus leurs études à leur sortie des Forces. Les établissements de formation supérieure sont vivement encouragés à évaluer et à remanier les programmes pour soutenir les particularités des vétéran(e)s qui, à de nombreux égards, diffèrent de celles des étudiants civils. La présente analyse exploratoire vise à obtenir un examen complet des pratiques exemplaires des publications sur les services aux vétéran(e)s américains en formation supérieure et à présenter des suggestions sur la mise en œuvre, l’évaluation et l’institutionnalisation des pratiques exemplaires. Méthodologie : L’analyse exploratoire, inspirée de la structure d’Arksey et O’Malley, reposait sur une méthodologie structurée et itérative pour assurer l’exactitude et la reproductibilité du processus. Les auteur(e)s ont procédé à une analyse exploratoire des publications universitaires et parallèles sur les programmes offerts par les collèges et les universités américains pour soutenir les vétéran(e)s aux études et accroître leur rétention, leur persistance et leur réussite. Résultats : La présente étude traite de trois secteurs précis : l’importance du soutien ciblé des collèges et université des États-Unis à la population de vétéran(e)s aux études, le type de programmes et de services que les collèges et universités offrent aux étudiants qui ont servi dans l’armée américaine et les données sur l’efficacité des programmes et services offerts par les collèges et universités. Discussion : Les observations des programmes et services en place sont examinées et classées en vertu des 8 Keys to Veterans’ Success. S’appuyant sur les pratiques exemplaires du programme des vétéran(e)s aux études en supérieures, les conséquences et les orientations possibles sont exposées.

Since October 2001, more than 2.5 million U.S. troops have deployed as part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), which includes Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn,1 and 43% of service members have deployed multiple times.2 It is estimated that, by 2020, a full 3.3 million U.S. service members who participated in GWOT conflicts will have separated.1 Projections further suggest that, by 2045, the United States will be home to 4,180,360 post-9/11 Veterans.3 As troops withdraw from conflicts in the Middle East, thousands of Veterans are returning to civilian society and commencing or resuming higher education. To support Veterans transitioning to civilian life, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was established to provide recently separated Veterans with support to cover academic expenses related to tuition, books, and housing, as well as a monthly stipend. Indeed, U.S. institutions of higher education are confronting the largest growth of student Veterans since the Second World War,4 as well as the largest populations of reservist and National Guard members activated for overseas deployments since 2001.5

It is important to note that student Veterans differ from traditional students in significant ways. The 2016 Student Veterans of America Census Survey reports that more than 63% of college student Veterans are aged 25-39 years, and more than 44% have a dependent spouse or child.6 More than 50% of U.S. college student Veterans have a mental or physical disability,6 complicating their successful adjustment to student life in the civilian world. Veterans are more likely to experience a range of psychological and relational difficulties that compromise educational and occupational achievement, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and partner violence.79 Moreover, the nature of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq pose unique risk factors that increase the likelihood of trauma and related effects.10 The U.S. government reports that 32% of recently separated Veterans have been diagnosed with musculoskeletal injuries, and approximately 12% have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).1 More than 383,000 cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) have been diagnosed in Veterans since 2000.11 Indeed, TBI and mild TBI are considered the signature injuries of the GWOT conflict, creating difficulties in focus, concentration, and memory for affected student Veterans.12

Compared with their traditional student peers, Veterans’ educational progress is more likely to be affected by non-academic factors. For example, Klaw and colleagues found that approximately one-third of student Veterans experienced loneliness, low social support, and psychological distress.8 In terms of context, findings suggest that many student Veterans experience significant financial stress during college.13, 14 With regard to integration into higher education, the National Survey for Student Engagement found that student Veterans experienced significantly less satisfaction with their student-faculty interactions, fewer opportunities for integrative learning, and less campus support than non-Veteran peers.15

For students on active duty and those serving in the National Guard or the military reserves, getting activated for duty can significantly disrupt academic progress.13, 16, 17 O’Rourke’s 2013 study of more than 1,100 student Veterans attending community colleges found that Veterans’ persistence in higher education was associated with several domains, including satisfaction with navigating the campus, positive student-faculty interactions, confidence in the affordability of education, fewer hours of employment, fewer family-related responsibilities, and greater encouragement from family and friends.13 In terms of psychological factors, stress had the most negative impact on intent to persist in college.13 As a result of the influx of GWOT Veterans, most colleges and universities in the United States have developed programs to serve Veteran and military students.17 Data, however, are scant with regard to the effectiveness of these efforts and their long-term impact.

The methodology for the current scoping review was based on the framework established by Arksey and O’Malley, a structured, iterative design that allows for accuracy and replication of the review process.18 This scoping review was undertaken to review existing literature on programs in U.S. colleges and universities to support student Veterans and enhance their retention, persistence, and success in higher education. Three specific questions were posed to frame the current project:

1)

To what extent are U.S. colleges and universities providing targeted support for their student Veteran population?

2)

What types of programs and services are colleges and universities providing to students who have served in the U.S. military?

3)

What data exists regarding the effectiveness of the programs and services offered by colleges and universities with regard to student Veterans’ satisfaction with college, their persistence in education, and their academic success?

To comprehensively review available literature regarding best practices in serving U.S. student Veterans, several search methods were utilized: online database searches were conducted to garner primary and secondary research; reference lists in relevant articles were used to identify primary sources and related literature; statistics were derived from online federal websites and platforms; and websites of national and local Veteran-serving organizations known to the authors were explored. Inclusion and exclusion decisions were based on whether the services were developed in response to the influx of GWOT Veterans and whether programs aimed to increase military students’ integration or had documented potential as emerging practices. These criteria allowed the first two authors to reach complete agreement regarding literature to review. Thus, to identify best practices in meeting the needs of student Veterans, only literature published between 2005 and 2019 was reviewed (see Figure 1). The following databases were used for the literature search: Academic Search Complete, CINAHL Complete, Education Research Complete, ERIC, Military & Government Collection, PsycINFO, and ProQuest. Grey literature authored by a credible source (i.e., the government) was included. Fifty studies from the initial 6,692 reviewed studies were determined to meet the criteria and were included in the final analysis for the scoping review.

Figure 1. Scoping review process

This scoping review of existing programs and services for college student Veterans is framed by federal standards for serving student Veterans in higher education. More specifically, a collaborative initiative involving the U.S. Departments of Education, Veterans Affairs (VA), and Defense introduced the 8 Keys to Veterans’ Success as “steps that postsecondary institutions can take to assist Veterans and Service members in transitioning to higher education, completing their college degrees, and obtaining career-ready skills.”19 Thus, in this review, existing programs and services are examined and categorized under the 8 Keys. Currently, 2,299 universities and colleges have affirmed support of the 8 Keys to Veterans’ Success, thereby committing to developing and establishing campus initiatives that support student Veterans.19

Key 1: Create a culture of trust and connectedness across the campus community to promote well-being and success for Veterans

Of the nearly 700 institutions of higher education that were surveyed in 2012, 62% already had programs and services in place for students who served in the armed forces, and 16% were in the process of designing such programs.20 The majority of institutions with services for military students aim to reduce cultural gaps that prevent Veterans from accessing social support needed for reintegration.13, 14, 21, 22 Thus, many universities and community colleges, including the University of California, Berkeley; San José State University (SJSU); Santa Monica College; and East Carolina University, hold a Veteran-specific orientation to provide points of contact for campus advisors, counselors, and other military student-specific resources and programs.23, 24 Targeted outreach programs allow Veterans to establish connections with peers, as well as with faculty and staff.23, 25, 26 SJSU also offers an undergraduate capstone course that focuses on common issues faced by military Veterans as they transition back into civilian roles.27 Research suggests that classes pertaining to Veterans’ unique experiences and challenges provide valuable opportunities for military and civilian students to learn from each other’s perspectives and to establish positive social connections.22, 27

Student Veteran organizations and clubs can provide the sense of camaraderie student Veterans once enjoyed in the military.28 In fact, the national organization, Student Veterans of America (SVA), reports that it “began on roughly 20 campuses in 2008 to create a network of connectedness through a peer support model.”29 SVA affiliates are now established in more than 850 institutions across the United States, including trade schools, community colleges, four-year private and public universities, and online higher education programs.29 Student-led organizations often play an integral role in representing military students on campus and even influence campus policies. Existing literature reveals they also facilitate peer mentoring, social support, and the dissemination of Veteran-specific information.29, 30 The University of California, Santa Cruz, Services for Transfer and Re-Entry Students Office, for example, offers a peer mentor program led by a student Veteran coordinator.24 Each peer mentor is trained to provide campus and community Veteran-specific resources, including updated and accessible contact information. Peer mentors also educate faculty, staff, administrators, and the student community on the challenges faced by military-connected students.24

Similarly, the Veterans Embracing Transition (VET) Connect Peer Leadership Program at SJSU employs student Veterans and military dependents to educate the campus and community about the needs and perspectives of Veterans.31 Research suggests that the VET Connect Program reduces military students’ isolation by connecting them to both peer and professional support across campus. By serving as peer leaders, Veterans integrate their student and military identities, develop professional skills such as public speaking, learn about campus resources, and gain insight into service experiences and coping mechanisms.31 Overall, findings suggest that peer leadership may serve as a potent, high-impact practice that engages Veterans in higher education.31, 32

Key 2: Ensure consistent and sustained support from campus leadership

For students serving in the National Guard or military reserve, consistent campus support is especially critical to mitigate disruptions caused by service activation.13, 16 Institutions with large military and Veteran student populations, such as Appalachian State University (ASU), developed comprehensive measures to maintain military students’ positive connections with the campus community while deployed.33 For example, specific financial aid and grading policies were developed to accommodate sudden course withdrawals due to deployment. Students receive procedural information regarding early enrollment, financial aid, and housing, along with campus newspapers, while deployed. In addition, support groups are provided to family members of deployed students. Upon returning to the campus, student Veterans meet with faculty members and administrators to discuss their needs regarding reintegration.33 The success of ASU’s Veteran programs can be attributed to strong support from the campus community and university administrators, specifically the associate vice chancellor and the Veterans’ Affairs coordinator.33 As a result of this institutional support, priority registration for student Veterans and active-duty service members has been implemented on campus and recommended as a best practice in higher education.34, 35

Many states, such as California, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have passed legislation to this end. Some schools, such as those in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, have assumed a major role in promoting legislation benefiting service members, Veterans, and dependents in higher education.36 In addition, some institutions partnered with the federal Yellow Ribbon Program to jointly supplement the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill covering Veterans’ tuition and school-related fees.37 Working in partnership with the VA, SVA’s executive director met with leaders from more than 100 institutions of higher education to push for increased support of student Veterans.29

Key 3: Implement an early alert system to ensure all Veterans receive academic, career, and financial advice before challenges become overwhelming

Some universities track the progress and needs of Veterans and military students across departments and offices to facilitate academic success and encourage students to seek assistance when needed.23 Institutions such as ASU and West Kentucky University have established databases and communication channels to allow staff to advise student Veterans on academic, career, and financial matters.33, 38 Not surprisingly, evidence suggests that early alert systems reduce time to completion for all non-traditional students.16 The 2012 American Council on Education (ACE) national survey results from 690 institutions revealed the campus services most used by student Veterans are financial aid counseling, employment assistance, and academic advising.4, 20 Student Veteran organizations throughout the United States have implemented on-campus programs to connect Veterans with financial, academic, and post-graduation aid. For example, the Veteran Student Organization of the University of Colorado Denver created Boots to Suits, a career mentoring effort. The Peer Advisors for Veteran Education, launched by the SVA in collaboration with the University of Michigan Depression Center, connects incoming military students with other student Veterans who provide assistance with navigating college life and resources.29

Key 4: Coordinate and centralize campus efforts for all Veterans, together with the creation of a designated space for them

Research conducted by ACE in 2012 indicated that, of 690 institutions surveyed, 71% had designated offices for student Veteran services, 68% had organizations or clubs for student Veterans, and 47% had a student Veteran lounge (compared with 12% in 2009).20 Designated office space promotes the visibility of campus Veteran services and increases the frequency of service use.4 SVA has advocated for the establishment of Veteran centers on campus through letter writing campaigns to university presidents and site visits to universities and colleges.39 Indeed, campuses with a space for Veteran services were found to be more likely to offer specialized counseling and support groups to student Veteran populations.4, 20 Moreover, institutions with offices for student Veterans are more likely to tailor and update their services, including establishing outreach strategies and providing training to staff and faculty members.4, 20 Research suggests that use of the Veteran Resource Center at SJSU is associated with increased academic engagement and university satisfaction for student Veterans.25

Key 5: Collaborate with local communities and organizations, including government agencies, to align and coordinate various services for Veterans

It is imperative for colleges and universities to collaborate with government agencies and outside organizations to better serve Veterans and military students.23, 30 VetSuccess on Campus, a federal initiative, was designed to assist U.S. military members, student Veterans, and dependents to achieve educational goals through access to campus resources, VA educational and health care benefits, and employers.40 Similarly, Joining Forces Illinois involves the SVA in statewide efforts to coordinate Veteran and military support.41

Local non-profit organizations provide additional support to student Veterans in their reintegration. Mission Continues, for example, allows Veterans to continue serving their country after separating from the military and provides stipends to Veterans for volunteering in community-based social service programs.42 Findings demonstrate that involvement in Mission Continues is linked to reduced isolation, increased sense of purpose, enhanced job skills, and a greater sense of civic involvement.42

Key 6: Utilize a uniform set of data tools to collect and track information on Veterans, including demographics, retention, and degree completion

A uniform set of data on student Veterans, including demographics, retention, and degree completion, is critical for institutions’ policy-making and program development. Yet, such a uniform set of data was not created until 2011.16, 43 Although there are a few databases established by local government agencies and institutions, there are significant discrepancies in data derived from different databases. For example, O’Rourke’s 2013 study revealed discrepancies between the data provided by the VA and those provided by the Chancellor’s Office of the California State University system regarding Veterans’ use of educational benefits.13

Moreover, because many Veterans are reluctant to disclose their military identity on college admissions forms, institutions usually rely on the use of the G.I. Bill to approximate student Veteran populations. However, G.I. Bill usage may not accurately reflect the size or trajectory of Veteran populations on campuses.16, 43 The 2017 National Veteran Education Success Tracker Project Report explored the academic outcomes of 853,111 student Veterans and revealed that the majority of student Veterans who earned a first bachelor’s degree did so within five years — a graduation rate comparable to that of other non-traditional students.44 In fact, the overall graduation rate for Veterans was 72%, higher than the national average of 67%.45 In terms of tracking student Veterans’ drop-out rate, the 2013 Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education survey suggested that only about 25% of the institutions across the United States had a comprehensive understanding of the reasons behind student Veterans’ drop-out.46 Without a comprehensive and standardized set of assessment tools, developing and sustaining effective programs to support student Veterans may be impossible. Thus, creating a nationwide universal database on student Veterans should be a top priority for governmental and higher education systems across the United States.

Key 7: Provide comprehensive professional development for faculty and staff on issues and challenges unique to Veterans

Most civilian students, faculty, and staff have little knowledge of military culture and Veterans’ specific needs, and they are unable to provide effective support to student Veterans as they transition to college and civilian society.20 One of the common complaints reported by student Veterans is that they experience indifferent and negative interactions with faculty, including derogatory remarks about the military.21, 47 The ACE survey revealed that 54% of institutions (n = 227) identified faculty and staff sensitivity toward student Veterans’ challenges as a priority.20 To that end, more than 45% of institutions provided professional development for faculty, and more than 60% provided professional development for staff.20 For example, ASU and Minnesota state universities attribute success in serving military and Veteran students to well-trained staff and faculty who work flexibly to meet the unique needs of this population.33, 36 Instructors at ASU provide personalized alternatives to course completion for active-duty students, such as allowing them to take final exams before deployment.33

Specific training for faculty and staff is clearly needed to improve military students’ educational experiences. As of 2012, only 44% of 669 U.S. institutions surveyed reported training staff to help students affected by injuries such as TBI and PTSD.20, 32 Institutions of higher education must offer specific training to staff and faculty on a regular basis to effectively support student Veterans. The University of Colorado Springs, for example, provides interactive training sessions on topics such as Veteran-specific campus resources, educational benefits, and military culture as well as on TBI and PTSD.48

Key 8: Develop systems that ensure sustainability of effective practices for Veterans

The institutionalization of services and training programs regarding the needs of military students is essential. National grant programs created and implemented by the U.S. Department of Education, such as Veterans Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers, and Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success (CEVSS), assist colleges and universities in supporting students transitioning from military life to post-secondary education.49 In specific, the CEVSS offers grants to institutions that demonstrate excellence in Veteran programming to coordinate comprehensive services that address military students’ social, financial, and academic challenges. At the university system level, the University of North Carolina’s UNC SERVES initiative seeks to coordinate and sustain Veteran support on all 16 campuses throughout the state. In addition, Florida State University committed to supporting Veterans by working with the campus SVA chapter and reports retention rates of approximately 88% for student Veterans.29

Moreover, for military and Veteran students to accomplish their educational goals in the face of injuries and disabilities, institutions need to research and adapt new approaches to accommodate disabled students while facilitating an inclusive learning environment. For example, Universal Design (UD), as implemented at universities such as SJSU, assists military and Veteran students in academic integration.50 UD accommodates the physical and psychosocial needs of all students related to classroom design and course curriculum.50 Essentially, UD is a human-centered approach that endows course curricula with flexibility and effective options for accommodating students with diverse backgrounds and needs (Table 1).

Table

Table 1. Summary of results

Table 1. Summary of results

Key to Veterans’ success Results
1. Create a culture of trust and connectedness across the campus community to promote well-being and success for Veterans.
  • As of 2012, 62% of surveyed higher education institutions nationally (N = 690) reported having Veteran-specific services:1

    • o 49% had a Veteran-specific orientation.20

    • o 47% had a student organization for student Veterans20 (850 institutions across the United States).29

  • As of 2020, 2,299 higher education institutions committed to supporting Veterans through the 8 keys.19

  • The current review identified 4 exemplars of campus services targeted toward “creating a culture of trust and connectedness to promote well-being and success for Veterans.”19

2. Ensure consistent and sustained support from campus leadership.
  • As of 2012, more than 80% of surveyed higher education institutions nationally (N = 690) had developed institutional procedures to enable deployed military students to continue their education.20

    • o 82% of campuses established tuition refunds for deployed students.20

    • o 28% of campuses streamlined re-enrollment processes for students returning from deployment.20

  • The current review identified 4 exemplars of states passing and promoting legislation benefiting service members, Veterans, and dependents in higher education.

3. Implement an early alert system to ensure all Veterans receive academic, career, and financial advice before challenges become overwhelming.
  • As of 2012 and the current review, a paucity of data exists regarding campuses’ efforts to implement early alert systems that track the progress and needs of Veterans and military students.

  • The current review identified 2 institutions of higher education that have established databases and communication channels to allow staff to advise student Veterans on academic, career, and financial matters.33,38

4. Coordinate and centralize campus efforts for all Veterans, together with the creation of a designated space for them (even if limited in size).
  • As of 2012, of 690 institutions surveyed,20

    • o 71 % had designated offices for student Veteran services,

    • o 68% had organizations or clubs for student Veterans, and

    • o 47% had a student Veteran lounge.

  • The current review identified 1 exemplar of a collaborative campus effort across the Academic and Student Affairs Divisions offering designated campus spaces for Veterans.

5. Collaborate with local communities and organizations, including government agencies, to align and coordinate various services for Veterans.
  • As of 2012 and the current review, all higher education institutions serving Veterans relied on collaborations with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to identify and support Veterans.

  • The current review identified 3 national and 1 statewide campus community initiative to support student Veterans’ success and retention (VSOC, The Mission Continues, SVA, Join Forces Illinois).

6. Utilize a uniform set of data tools to collect and track information on Veterans, including demographics, retention, and degree completion.
  • As of 2012 and the current review, a standardized system for tracking the progress of military students is lacking for institutions of higher education.

    • o Only about 25% of the institutions across the United States had a comprehensive understanding of the reasons behind student Veterans’ drop-out.46

    • o The current review identified 1 national effort (2017 NVEST) to examine the academic outcomes of student Veterans (N = 853,111), revealing that the majority graduated at a rate comparable to that of other non-traditional students.44

7. Provide comprehensive professional development for faculty and staff on issues and challenges unique to Veterans.
  • As of 2012, more than 45% of institutions surveyed nationally provided professional development for faculty, and more than 60% provided professional development for staff.20

  • Only 44% reported that they had trained staff to help students affected by common injuries such as TBI and PTSD.20,32

  • The current review identified 1 exemplar of an interactive training program for faculty and staff on topics such as Veteran-specific campus resources, educational benefits, military culture, and TBI and PTSD.48

8. Develop systems that ensure sustainability of effective practices for Veterans.
  • As of 2016, 3 national grant programs were implemented by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure student Veteran success:

    • o VUB

    • o EOC

    • o CEVSS.

  • The current review identified 3 exemplars of coordinated systems at universities that ensure and monitor sustainability of effective practices.

  • Further research is sorely needed to evaluate effectiveness of Veteran-specific campus programming.

Note: VSOC = VetSuccess on Campus; SVA = Student Veterans of America; NVEST = National Veteran Education Success Tracker; TBI = traumatic brain injury; PTSD = posttraumatic stress disorder; VUB = Veterans Upward Bound; EOC = Educational Opportunity Centers; CEVSS = Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success.

In summary, current research and policy guidelines suggest that student Veterans benefit from 1) a supportive campus climate that promotes integration with Veteran and civilian peers; 2) streamlined procedures related to academic advising and transfer of course credit; 3) Veteran-specific campus services, such as a Veteran Resource Center, and Veteran-specific programs, such as peer leadership efforts and Veteran orientation; 4) campus education targeting faculty, staff, and civilian students regarding the unique needs, experiences, and perspectives of students who have served; and 5) opportunities for participation in service and community engagement.

In practice, the absence of uniform data on student Veterans remains a significant challenge. Therefore, maintaining a national database on student Veterans should be a top priority in higher education. Of equal significance, it is imperative that institutions of higher education continually assess Veterans’ needs and experiences on campus to ensure quality programming and sustained institutional support.

To conclude, on the basis of the current scoping review, the authors recommend that military students be surveyed annually to assess their knowledge of, and satisfaction with, campus climate, accessibility, student Veteran organizations, opportunities to access funding and support from the VA and other Veteran-supporting organizations, campus employment options, and career development opportunities. In addition, the authors recommend that faculty and staff be surveyed annually on their perception of the extent and quality of campus programs for military students and student Veterans, as well as the available support and training opportunities to serve this population.

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