Traditional four-year schools are on the verge of losing an entire generation of student veterans because of lackluster recruiting and support programs, according to new research.
The findings, from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, comprise the first in a series of reports designed to challenge higher education officials to find better ways to help students moving from military service to civilian life.
"We would like to see a shift in focus and engagement across higher education while there is still an opportunity to step up," said Mike Haynie, vice chancellor at Syracuse and founder of the institute. "As a community, higher education has, in a lot of ways, been on the sidelines during the last 13 years of war."
The latest study, which surveyed 8,500 troops and veterans, found more than one in five veterans attending college felt uncomfortable sharing their military background on campus. Nearly half said they thought their college staff does not understand the skills and experience they bring as new students.
About 71 percent of those surveyed felt the military had prepared them to be better students, and 92 percent saw post-military college classes as key to successful transition to civilian life.
But that enthusiasm has been dimmed by constraints of the traditional, four-year college degree program built around the lifestyle of recent high school graduates.
"(Veterans) are older than their non-veteran student peers, more likely to be married and have children," the report states. "Unfortunately, non-traditional students represent a growing, yet long marginalized, population of students ... Too few top schools offer degree programs that complement (their) lifestyle demands."
Researchers argue that's one reason why nearly 40 percent of all GI Bill tuition payments over the last five years have gone to for-profit and online schools, despite concerns about the worth of degrees from many of those institutions.
Lawmakers and veterans groups have largely criticized those schools for overaggressive marketing aimed at veterans for their own financial reasons, but Haynie argues that also reflects veterans' frustration with the inflexibility of traditional college offerings.
"When you look at employers' response (to the recent wars), you can argue they have successfully stepped up with jobs programs in a way we've never seen before," he said. "We haven't seen higher education with those same kinds of incentives, making small investments in support services that could make a huge difference to veterans."
Veterans make up only small percentages of student bodies at traditional four-year colleges, which Haynie said has allowed administrators to become too passive in their approach toward helping those students.
In early 2016, IVMF has planned a series of follow-up reports looking at specific programs and infrastructure at college campuses that are helping veterans.
Nicholas Armstrong, a senior director of research with IVMF, said the goal of the ongoing work is to not only to show which approaches are working best but also to show how schools can help guide veterans into in-demand career fields, like engineering and science.
More than half of the veterans surveyed in the report said they plan to pursue a degree unrelated to their military specialty, a point often overlooked in public efforts to match veterans with jobs that connect directly to their military skills.
The full report is available at IVMF's website.