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Student veterans make up approximately six percent of undergraduate college students and seven percent of graduate students (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics). While generally referred to as student veterans, this overarching title includes active-duty service members and those in the National Guard or Reserves.
Precise information on the military-connected student population, or even those using VA education benefits, is limited because the data doesn’t distinguish between undergraduate and graduate students or veterans and their dependents. However, a few conclusions are evident when combining the data with data from individual schools.
Student veterans are an incredibly diverse population and decidedly different from traditional college students.
Student veterans are more likely to be:
Post-9/11 veterans are 1.4 times more likely to complete their program than all adult learners. In addition to their higher completion rates, they tend to have a higher average GPA of 3.34, compared to traditional students at 2.94. Student veterans have the potential to be incredibly successful, particularly at high-graduation-rate institutions, as a report from the National Veteran Education Tracker (NVEST) Project reported.
In 2021, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that there were 5.1 million Post-9/11 Veterans, only 32% of which had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The VA also reported that in 2020, only 40% of eligible veterans were using their educational benefits.
This leaves millions of veterans eligible for educational benefits and in need of additional postsecondary education.
Institutions have many opportunities to market to and recruit veterans who are a good fit for their programs.
Veterans are overrepresented in for-profit and two-year institutions and underrepresented in public, four-year institutions. While data on student veteran selection criteria is limited, likely, these types of institutions are simply more effective in targeting this population.
About half of those using VA education benefits enroll in undergraduate programs. Another quarter enroll in two-year schools, 9% in graduate programs and 15% in vocational, technical or non-degree programs.
The programs where you’re most likely to see student veterans enrolling are business (27%), STEM (14%) or health professions (10%).
Veterans enroll in colleges and other higher education institutions for many of the same reasons non-veterans do. They want to develop new skills, increase career options and improve their quality of life. They may also be interested in learning how to apply some of the skills learned in the military to a civilian career.
Because student veterans are typically older and more likely to be raising a family or working (or both) during their college experience, they often find programs that offer multiple modalities attractive. Flexibility about full-time and part-time; online, in person or hybrid programs; and continuous enrollment options are all important to student veterans.
About 15% of student veterans attend multiple schools and are interested in transferring credits when looking at prospective institutions.
Student veterans also seek support when looking at a new college or program. They want to know who to talk to about their educational benefits, who can help them make decisions about their program timeline, who can help navigate the enrollment process and how to get involved with veteran support groups.
There are quite a few challenges these students face that non-military students don’t, including the bureaucratic difficulties related to using their educational benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill®️ and other funding through the Department of Veterans Affairs can be difficult for students to understand.
Paying for school isn’t the only thing weighing on the minds of these students. They also find these things challenging:
Students often note a lack of peer support as their most significant challenge – something many veterans and military families encounter. Referred to as the military/civilian divide, this disconnect occurs when people don’t have direct contact with the military.
Only about one-third of adults between 18 and 29 have an immediate family member who served in the military, while in their parent’s generation, 79% have that intimate connection. Not having a connection to the military increases confusion and misunderstandings.
Military-connected students may also face aggressive targeting from academic institutions that aren’t particularly concerned about supporting them holistically. Most of all, these students want to feel understood and supported in their academic decisions.
One of the ways to become more familiar with military-connected students is by collaborating with higher education institutions, foundations and other organizations committed to the success of military-connected students.
Here are some of the top recommendations from Veteran-forward organizations.
Military-connected students believe their military experience directly aids them in pursuing a college degree. They are resilient despite difficult events or stressful environments. Establishing specific counseling and mental health programs can help them continue to succeed.
Virtual Veterans Community (VVC) is a mission-driven organization dedicated to improving higher education and employment outcomes for military-connected students. We exist for one reason, to support institutions serving the students who serve our country. Whether you need a proven approach to on-base marketing, a turnkey online community, one-on-one coaching for military-connected students or team development, VVC stands ready.
Baird, Matthew, Michael S. Kofoed, Trey Miller, and Jennie Wenger, Educators of Veterans or For-Profiteers? Tuition Responses to Changes in the Post 9/11 GI Bill, working paper, IZA, September 2020.
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