At many colleges and universities, you can go to the veterans center for extra help if you fall behind academically. At the University of South Florida, the veterans center goes to you — and you don't have a choice in the matter.

"A lot of veterans won't ask for help, even when you reach out to them," said Larry Braue, director of the USF Office of Veteran Success.

To address this, the school regularly tracks the academic performance of its vet students. Those whose grades start to lag and who don't go to Braue's office for help will find a hold placed on their records that prevents them from registering for new classes until they sit down with the vet staff.

"It's working. They've got to come in, and we've saved a bunch — that's for sure," Braue said. "'Intrusive counseling' is kind of what we've been calling it."

USF is tops among 4-year institutions in the 2017 version of our Best for Vets: Colleges rankings, followed by Rutgers and Syracuse University.

Among online and nontraditional schools, the top spots went to Upper Iowa University, Central Texas College and Bellevue University, Nebraska.

Nebraska's Central Community College, Clackamas Community College in Oregon and Pierce College in Washington state were the top 2-year schools.

To be considered, colleges had to fill out an exhaustively detailed, roughly 150-question survey. We evaluated institutions based on their survey responses as well as on data collected by three different federal agencies.

As in years past, competition to make the list was intense, and most colleges that filled out the survey didn't make the cut.

More than 90 percent of institutions responding to the Military Times survey have signed on to major federal education agreements related to military and veteran students, such as the White House's Principles of Excellence and the Defense Department's Memorandum of Understanding.

COST, CREDITS AND CULTURE

Assuming full education benefits, service members and veterans can expect to attend most of the institutions that responded to our survey and pay little to nothing out of pocket. More than 90 percent of institutions have costs under the cap for active-duty military tuition assistance — at the graduate level and undergraduate level alike.

For veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a little less than half of schools had costs within that benefit's limits. But nearly every institution whose costs exceed what the benefit pays participated in the Yellow Ribbon program to make up the difference, and a strong majority completely made up the gap for all students using the benefit.

Institutions allowed vet students to earn credit for their existing knowledge and experience in a variety of ways.

CLEP and DSST, also known as DANTES, were the most widely accepted credit-by-exam programs, each recognized by more than two-thirds of schools.

Vets can also shorten their time to a degree through portfolio reviews that give academic credit for prior military training and experience. More than 86 percent of schools recognize the credit guidelines published by the American Council on Education, while other portfolio review programs are recognized much less frequently.

More than four in five responding institutions have military or veterans clubs, and just under three-quarters of have a veterans center.

Student veterans at New York's Fordham University perform "muck ruck pushups."

Photo Credit: Fordham University


On average, schools reported one employee who spent most of his or her time focused on veterans for every 174 student vets.

About three quarters of responding institutions offer training in military and veteran issues. But a significant number of school employees already have personal ties to the military — more than 70 percent reported having at least one military-connected employee in upper-tier positions such as president, dean or trustee board member. Schools reported that veterans comprised roughly 5 percent of their overall employee populations.

TRACKING STUDENTS WITH MILITARY TIES

Just a few years ago, hardly any institutions tracked the academic outcomes of their veteran students. This year, nearly two-thirds of institutions were able to provide veteran-specific course completion, persistence, retention or graduation rates — more than ever before.

Responding colleges charted an average course completion rate of 85 percent and a graduation rate of 51 percent.

Student veterans accounted for just under 8 percent of the enrollment at responding institutions.

Schools are catching and flagging their vet students right away, with better than nine in 10 using questions on their admission applications to identify veterans.

Until recently, many didn't even know how many veteran students they had enrolled. Now, many schools not only know their vets, they have intensive academic tracking and outreach efforts similar to those at USF.

"We use an early alert system to identify students who have difficulty and work on personalized intervention for those students," Barbara Merlo, marketing director for Central Texas College, said in an email.

Similar efforts are underway even at some institutions where tracking and outreach are complicated by the fact that most students attend class online or throughout a nationwide sprawl of campuses.

Upper Iowa University, which offers classes on a main campus, in 25 extension centers throughout the country and online, tracks even how often online students log in to do work and reaches out regularly to those who might be falling behind.

"The constant communication with the students is huge," said Chad Cook, the school's director of military and veteran services.

PEER CONNECTIONS

It's not just school employees helping vet students — fellow student veterans have a big role to play as well.

Upper Iowa University is one of a few dozen institutions nationwide that are part of the new Peer Advisors for Veteran Education, or PAVE, program led by the University of Michigan. This program connects new vet students with those already on campus for guidance on college life and academics.

"It's a peer-assisted model to really help with acclimation and making people feel like they belong, kind of having that support network that you would have in the military," Cook said.

Aimee Carpenter, a former Air Force staff sergeant enrolled at USF, has both relied on other vet students for tutoring help and helped fellow vets herself in her work-study role in the school's vet center.

"I think if I hadn't worked at this office, it would have been a pretty difficult road, honestly, in getting back to civilian life," Carpenter said.

"I feel like I can talk to them about things that I can't talk to people in class about," she said. "It's nice, you know, to say something and to use like military slang and to have people just understand what you're talking about."

Being involved and helping others is a key way for student veterans to help themselves, said Travis Karr, veterans and military services director for Central Community College in Nebraska.

The student veteran group at Karr's institution has been holding fewer meetings and more volunteer activities, helping vets in the community move or do maintenance work on their houses.

"By creating those activities, we create more of a purpose for other veterans who want to join in and support the cause," Karr said, adding that this helps replace the sense of a greater mission and duty that veterans can miss after leaving the military.

"Then they get connected to our resources within the center. They get connected to our other veterans who use those resources."

MORE TRENDS

Ann Treadaway, director of the Rutgers Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services, echoed that view and highlighted the RU DogTags program.

Through this program, student veterans can help train shelter animals to become service dogs for other veterans. Veterans who train the dogs get a fulfilling activity, and those who receive the dogs get a companion animal. And the shelter dogs, who might not otherwise be adopted, get a new lease on life.

"In a way, it's them saving each other," Treadaway said.

The higher education community is flourishing with new ideas and programs to support veterans. Perhaps the best example is Syracuse University, where the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, created in 2011, has developed initiatives for veterans that have been adopted broadly nationwide, including the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans.

IVMF has a dual mission of both researching military and veteran issues and coming up with solutions to common obstacles, said Michael Haynie, Syracuse's vice chancellor for veteran and military affairs. He estimated that 35,000 people with military connections took advantage of IVMF programs last year.

IVMF's "mission is, to put it most simply, advance the post-service lives of military veterans and their families," Haynie said.

Military Times and Syracuse University partnered recently on the Military Times/Institute for Veterans and Military Families Poll, a scientific survey of the views of service members and veterans. That partnership is unrelated to the Best for Vets rankings and had no impact on the results.

Syracuse's Haynie advised transitioning vets to take an approach that kept their career and long-term goals in mind.

"Be an informed consumer," Haynie said. "Take the time to really understand — relative to what you want to achieve in your career — what are the steps and stages with regard to education that you have to go through to achieve that long-term aspiration."