Education Advice Still A Struggle for Returning Veterans

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We are in the midst of one of the longest periods of ongoing military action in U.S. History. Thousands of service men and women rotate in and out of active duty each year; and when veterans come home from war they try to put their lives back together. But even with the support available to them, a big link in their transition is often missing: clear advice on how to go back to school and manage the next phase of their education.

Pamela Tate, president and CEO of Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (“CAEL”), said at a hearing on educating veterans in Washington D.C. in November that returning veterans, in spite of financial aid available, “don’t know where they should go to school, what they should study and what careers are there for them.’’

According to the Hechinger Report, a bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan could allow for a lasting presence of troops there through 2024, sending even more veterans into limbo.

That means the road to higher education will remain fraught with challenges for U.S. veterans, some two million men and women who have or will return from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the next few years.

It’s a sad state of affairs for a country that educated about 10 million returning veterans after World War II – including three U.S. presidents, three Supreme Court justices, 14 Nobel Prize winners and 24 Pulitzer Prize winners.

The GI bill of 1944 transformed U.S. higher education with benefits allowing veterans to attend any institution that admitted them. The bill helped support spouses and children and offered preparation for vocational careers in construction, auto mechanics and electrical wiring, among others.

In recent years, the revamped Post-9/11 GI bill has provided financial aid to veterans and their families, including reservists and National Guard members – but critics say it does not go far enough to ease the transition home.

“When you leave the military, you are on an island by yourself,’’ said James Selbe, the key advisor for advocacy and support of military, veterans and their family members at University of Maryland University College.

The piece in the Hechinger Report notes that today’s veterans are having increasing difficulty accessing their benefits, and may end up wandering around campuses looking for someone who can help them transfer credits, register for classes or provide career advice.

Today’s veterans often have difficulty accessing their benefits, and may end up wandering around campuses looking for someone who can help them transfer credits, register for classes or provide career advice. They are not represented at many elite colleges.

Some are finding themselves deep in debt due to predatory lenders; others scammed by for-profit colleges that lure them in – and don’t deliver what they’ve promised. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission warned veterans to be cautious before choosing a for-profit school; at one point some 22 percent of veterans chose the for-profit route.

“They may want to use your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to boost their bottom line and may not help you achieve your educations goals,” the commission cautioned.

In California, colleges are finding that benefits don’t go far enough. Campuses are stretched as they try to give veterans the help they need and deserve, said Patrick O’Rourke, director of veteran affairs services for the office of the chancellor at California State University, where the VetNet program provides veteran services and support.

“What we do in California for our veterans comes out of our pockets,’’ O’Rourke said. In a recent visit to centers on two California college campuses, O’Rourke discovered crushing workloads and staff members overwhelmed just trying to connect veterans with simple answers about using their benefits.

Tate, O’Rourke and Selbe of UMUC were among panelists at “Success After Service: Improving Postsecondary Education for Veterans,’’ a discussion that took place in Washington D.C. earlier this month in honor of Veterans Day.

The discussion came some three months after President Barack Obama signed new legislation that asks colleges to boost efforts to help veterans get to and through college.

Tate of CAEL said too many veterans don’t know where to go to school, how to get credit for prior learning or work experience and what careers are available to them.

They also often struggle to find answers for their unique range of issues – everything from transferring credits to studying full-time while supporting a family to post-traumatic stress and physical injuries.

What most need is career training that looks at what skills they have – and which ones they need, said Selbe, of UMUC.

“Historically at UMUC they come not to get a job, but to get the next job,’’ Selbe said. “So from a career services perspective that’s where our efforts have been, but with the economy taking a dive and vets coming back in increasing numbers, it has not been the case. We didn’t have the capacity or skill set to let vets navigate their way through.’’

UMUC now trains those who work in career services in the unique needs of veterans, Selbe said – a bright spot in the growing recognition of the continuing obstacles veterans face.

It’s important for hopeful signs to start outnumbering the obstacles – especially as the number of veterans and their families seeking higher education continues to grow.

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