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With about one-tenth the population of Washington, D.C., Rapid City, S.D., is a bustling metropolis of 68,000 with tourist magnets such as the largest private collection of black bears in the world and a park containing seven enormous dinosaur statues.
It also happens to be home to one of this year's top colleges for veterans, beating out a number of nationally renowned institutions.
The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology is a relatively small school of about 2,400 students, but more than 150 of them are veterans or active-duty personnel. The school has a central veterans' office, nine staff members who deal primarily with vets and comprehensive policies for students who need to withdraw because of military obligations or whose benefits are delayed.
This tiny school nestled in the Black Hills raises the question: Why has SDSM&T gone above and beyond for its veterans, while some of America's most prestigious colleges don't have any staff at all dedicated to helping vets?
SDSM&T's Veterans Resource Center coordinator Catherine Payne says the school has been vet-friendly as long as anyone can remember.
"Ever since I've moved here, you just feel and see the support everywhere," she said.
Payne speculates that the college's location near Ellsworth Air Force Base might contribute to its large veteran population, but she notes that the school's history of serving veterans dates back to World War I, before the Air Force existed, possibly because of the nearby National Guard camp established in the 1900s.
Since then, Payne said generations of veteran alumni have established endowments for vet-related programs and spread the school's reputation by word of mouth. Today, she finds herself answering emails from prospective students who are on the ground in Afghanistan.
A new commitment
Other hidden gems that scored well on our survey just recently started pursuing military students.
Eastern Kentucky University, a regional college in the heart of Appalachia, came in second among the four-year colleges on our list.
EKU's Associate Director for Veterans Affairs Brett Morris said the school began to zero in on recruiting vets around 2008, when the American Council on Education held its first Veterans Summit. One of the attendees was EKU President Doug Whitlock, an EKU alum who joined ROTC there and was commissioned in 1965.
"The recognition was … that we could expect to see more veterans [attending college] because of the changes to the GI Bill," Whitlock said. "As we began as an institution to look at best practices, we saw that we had some shortcomings, so we wanted to try to address those pretty quickly to make sure that if we were going to bring the vets there, bring them to our campus, that we were … delivering the goods in terms of services."
The school began conducting focus groups, and in May 2010 laid out a list of 10 quick policy changes that vets wanted, such as priority registration for military students and in-state tuition for vets.
And veterans have noticed. Out of 20 EKU students and alumni who responded to EDGE's student survey earlier this year, 17 said they were "very satisfied" with the staff at the school who are dedicated to working with veterans. Fifteen gave the same score to the university's communication with military students; 16 said they were very satisfied with the school's handling of benefits; and 15 said the same of academic support for veterans.
"It's improved a lot," said Donna Moseley, a Navy retiree who has been at the school since 2008.
Moseley chose EKU mainly because of its strong dietetics program but said having a community of students more like her than many of her 18- and 19-year-old classmates has made the experience less stressful.
She said a military community wasn't high on her list of priorities, but that it probably should have been.
"I didn't consider … how awkward it would be to go back to school at an older age with younger kids," she said.
Morris said the veteran population on campus has grown by more than 200 students, or about 40 percent, in the past year.
A friendly head start
Michael Adams, a student at Western Nebraska Community College, which ranked highest on our list of two-year schools, said he had no idea how good the veterans services were at WNCC before he enrolled. As he later looked for a four-year school where he could finish his bachelor's degree, his only gauge for vet-friendliness was whether certifying officials returned his emails. He settled on the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He plans to start classes there next fall.
"Being a veteran and knowing that the school has a staff to support veterans, that's probably one of the top three reasons why I'm choosing the school," he said.
Doing what others don't
Most of the schools that made this year's cut are public, including 51 of the 59 four-year schools.
George Washington University is an exception. At number 16, it's one of the highest-ranked nonprofit private schools on our list.
Mary Waring, outreach coordinator at George Washington's Veterans Office, said GWU invests in veterans because the school wants the wide range of experience vets bring to the classroom. But the higher price of private colleges can make it harder for them to attract large numbers of veterans, she added. Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, "private schools are automatically subject to a cap this year of $17,500."
Seventy-one percent of private colleges that answered our survey said some or all of their programs exceed the revamped Post-9/11 GI Bill cap, compared with 26 percent of public colleges.
Waring noted that schools exceeding the cap have the option to enter the Yellow Ribbon scholarship program, in which the Veterans Affairs Department will match the school dollar-for-dollar for any amount above that cap, but that not all colleges can afford it.
In the 2010-2011 school year, GWU gave out $2 million in Yellow Ribbon scholarships to 316 students.
Beyond financial considerations, Waring said schools often have different strategic visions that could shape their policies on military and veteran students.
Waring said she might consider pushing for relaxed admission standards for vets, but vets are set against it.
"One of the things that they're very vocal about is, they don't want any changes to be made to the admissions process," she said. "All the veterans want is to get in on their own merit."