Institution leaders are all too aware that the student population has become increasingly diverse, and they’ve become accustomed to the phrase, “serving the needs of nontraditional students.” But almost ironically, this emphasis has lumped myriad types of individuals into the nontraditional category — which higher education stakeholders are realizing is counterproductive to their ability to develop best practices around recruiting and retaining enrollees.
And, military-affiliated students are no exception to this.
Throughout the industry a common trope is that nontraditional students are more difficult to keep on track. While it’s true that two-thirds of student veterans are first-generation college students and they tend to complete their degree in outside the standard four-year framework, military-affiliated students and veterans graduate in line with the national average, according to data from The National Veteran Education Success Tracker Project – 54% of successfully graduate. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that students who began seeking a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution in fall 2009 completed that degree within six years is 52.9%.
Still, industry experts contend the veterans’ graduate rate isn’t good enough. A review of some institutions’ approaches to veteran students shows that serving this body doesn’t revolve necessarily around the same retention methods other students may require — all of which begs the question: How can institutions develop best practices around military-affiliated (currently serving, veterans, family members) students?
Understand nuances of military culture
Military-affiliated students are accustomed to working in teams, have leadership skills, are mission and goal oriented, and don't want to waste time on frivolous activities, said Bill Kawczynski, intelligence analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps and director of military affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where about 10% of the student population is military affiliated.
“They come to school and think, ‘I’m here for this, this is my next thing,’" Kawczynski said in a phone interview. “They are literal about their timelines,”
Students who are in the military or who are veterans typically don’t require similar retention strategies that are associated with high-risk students from low-income, underserved backgrounds because these enrollees are used to structure. Instead of intervention strategies intended to help students stay on track, they need clear instructions and guidelines from the beginning, said Kawczynski.
In the military, “you’re told everything you need to do and it’s structured — and then you come to a university environment and it’s a complete 180 [degrees],” he said..”Success is about trying to find those ways where both the faculty and the staff have a much better understanding of our military-affiliated students, integrating them as much as we can on campus and having that open door policy is helping them transition.”
Another major aspect of military culture that UNCW taps into is understanding and respect, said Siobhan Norris, veteran, military liaison and program manager. Norris, who is a former military service member, remembers having to bring her child to the classroom one evening and how accommodating her professor was. As many veterans have familial commitments, she said being respectful a team player is essential even at the faculty level.
“One of the biggest things I hear from our [military] student population is that there’s a level of respect that they receive on campus. They aren’t called out or put on spot. We respect them for their service and their high level of professionalism,” said Norris. “I think that goes a long way in terms of retaining our students so they feel supported and they have a wonderful experience on campus.”
Tap into culture of bonding and shared mission
Military-affiliated students are used to a sense of camaraderie and bonding around a shared mission, said James Bogle, a veteran who is program director of the on-ground Master of Business for Veterans program at the University of Southern California — a program that is centered on helping veteran students specifically get business degrees rather than a generic MBA. For these students, feeling like they can relate to others with shared experiences and count on them for support is important to their success. It’s for this reason, Bogle said, he focuses on a residential program for veterans, because he isn’t sure the same type of bonding could happen online.
“When we leave the military there are three things that we universally miss: There’s a mission, a sense that you’re serving a higher purpose, there’s the camaraderie of your friends and colleagues, and then there’s your identity,” he said. “It’s service that’s valued by society and that shapes who you are. “
“We use a cohort model to deliver the program. … Most of them come in with the concept already because it exists in the military strategy that you leave nobody behind. The only other retention strategies are if they need guidance or tutoring, then we can arrange that. ”
Tim Gilrain, assistant dean of Drexel University’s Goodwin College of Professional Studies, said the university’s Military Transition Program provides a sense of comfort around community to help veterans make the transition into academia more effectively.
“We are very welcoming to the veteran population. We do a great deal of investment, celebrations like Veterans Day. We give them opportunities to separate when they need to and become part of the crowd when it makes sense. Our focus has really been to meet them where they are and give them the guidance they need as they make that transition,” said Gilrain.
The most valuable thing an institution can do before starting a veterans program, he said, is to learn the practices of other institutions and reach out to local military-affiliated communities. And, as Drexel has online and residential options for these students, he added that it builds community by incorporating meetings into the digital setting.
Rebecca Weidensaul, associate dean of students at Drexel University, said every online military-affliated student has the same access to the resources as on-campus learners, and the university offers one-on-one mentorship and support, short courses, and a five-week online learning module to help them form better study skills — “resources that mirror what happens in a face to face environment.”
She added: “We have former military who are able to address any questions people might have. They know how to respond to a student online who might be in a crisis.
Create programs that provide lifelong purpose
Being involved in the military revolves around one central duty, said Bogle, which makes it difficult for students to figure out what they want to do after finishing their service. It’s not a matter of being able to retain these students, he said, but helping them figure out a new career that gives them meaning.
“At least half of them don’t know what they want to do. It’s hard because in the military, it’s a career that’s so completely engrossing,” said Bogle. “When I ended my service, I was searching on the website, searching for where I’m going to make an impact. I did some really interesting cool things in the military that I was really confident in what I was able to do, but I had no idea how it was going to apply to another career.”
He explained USC Marshall has accomplished this goal by facilitating partnerships with local industryHe explained USC Marshall has accomplished this goal by facilitating partnerships with local industry companies that recruit from its student population or educate the veterans they hired already. The university also put together an opportunity that allowed students to hone business skills for a recognition project that included IBM and Northrop Grumman, among others.
Recognizing that military-affiliated students and spouses can be deployed anywhere at any time, UNCW focused on portable careers that also provide a sense of higher purpose, said Richard Ogle, senior associate provost for academic affairs.
The institution also added a veterans center on campus that serves not only as a point for students to gather and connect, but also as an advocacy career center.
“Having a center on campus where they can go and be with their peers is huge,” Ogle sadi. “Our base provides them with a main point of contact or someone who help connect that person to the registrar's office, financial aid or career counseling.”
While all military-affliated students are unique, he added, “Having a community and a sense of mission gives them an almost sense of respite,” he said.