Best for Vets: Colleges 2020 rankings

Uncle Sam gives you a paycheck, covers medical expenses and picks up your housing costs when you’re in the military — but maybe the biggest benefit you can get from your service is in the classroom.

Military tuition assistance covers college costs for active duty troops, and the generous Post-9/11 GI Bill is there for vets. Together, they can help you earn a degree without piling up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, as your civilian counterparts often do.

So how do you make the most of these benefits? The first step is picking the right school.

Military Times’ newest Best for Vets: Colleges rankings are out to help you with that. We surveyed hundreds of colleges and universities from across the country on their policies related to military and veteran students, academic outcomes, military-supportive cultures and other factors.

Here’s a look at some of this year’s top finishers.

4-year schools

1. The University of Texas at Arlington: With a huge population of service members and veterans, totaling more than 3,100, the school has ample experience working with military-connected students. This year, the school shared some of its best practices related to supporting student veterans with officials from other universities in Arkansas and Dallas. The University of Texas at Arlington also has a program to connect faculty and staff who served in the military with students who served, providing mentors who understand the military background.

2. Colorado State University: A key measure we consider when evaluating colleges is how well they track their student veterans’ academic outcomes – and whether those students are succeeding. Colorado State University was able to report data for every single academic outcome measure we asked for, from retention and persistence rates to GPAs, from graduation rates to course completion rates. And the numbers show student veterans doing well in school, with the school boasting a 93 percent course completion rate.

3. University of Nebraska at Omaha: UNO has been at or near the top of our Best for Vets rankings for years, propelled by a strong university-wide culture of military support. That culture starts at the very top. The president of the University of Nebraska system is a veteran, and the chairman of the system’s board of regents is a lieutenant colonel in the Nebraska Air National Guard. The school gives veterans a significant preference in the admissions process and waives all application fees for military-connected students. The school also boasts small class sizes, with nearly half of classes having 20 or fewer students.

2-year schools

1. Central Community College: Like many public community colleges, this school, located about 100 miles west of Lincoln, Nebraska, is a very budget-friendly option. Central Community College keeps its tuition costs below the caps applied to military tuition assistance and also provides in-state tuition rates to student veterans who aren’t state residents, in accordance with rules tied to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. But this school differentiates itself by going well above and beyond what those rules require, providing in-state tuition to vets who left the military many years ago, to vets who are unable to maintain continuous enrollment, and even to vets who are out of GI Bill benefits.

2. Northwestern Michigan College: This school offers a wide array of support services for its student veterans, many of them specially created for vets. This includes academic support, such as tutoring and mentorship, career support, such as resume assistance and job placement, and mental health support, such as counseling and peer support groups. Northwestern Michigan College even offers free yoga and mindfulness classes weekly, open exclusively to veterans.

Online and nontraditional schools

1. Saint Leo University: As part of their military service and training, troops often learn many skills that their civilian counterparts take college classes to learn. But some colleges are stingy about awarding academic credit for that knowledge. Saint Leo takes the opposite approach. The school allows vets to test out of classes with exams such as the College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, and DANTES Subject Standardized Tests. In addition, vets can get more academic credit through portfolio reviews of their military training at the school. Taken together, these can help vets earn degrees much more quickly.

2. Liberty University: Thanks to a huge online student population, this private religious university boasts an overall enrollment of more than 110,000 students, nearly 24,000 of whom have ties to the military. Such a large student population can make it hard for a school to know and act when individual students struggle academically. But Liberty has put in place automated processes that let professors and staff know when students are falling behind on their work or their grades are dropping below the required standards. “All of these processes allow the university opportunities to intervene and create an academic success plan with the struggling student,” the school wrote in its survey response.

Career and technical colleges

1. ECPI University: Nearly one out of every seven staff members at ECPI is a veteran, giving the school one of the highest proportions of vet employees of any school considered for this year’s rankings. That can go a long way toward helping a school understand the needs of its student veteran population. And on top of that, the school conducts surveys of its student vets at least twice per year to gauge their satisfaction with the school and its services. ECPI also has special degree programs for troops and vets, in cybersecurity and electronics engineering, that allow them to leverage their military training and experience to earn degrees quickly.

2. Gwinnett Technical College: At least twice each year, this school holds training sessions on the GI Bill, academic support for student veterans, PTSD and related issues. The training is required for all administrators and staff, as well as some faculty. The general student population can also optionally participate. In addition, the school provides a lot of flexibility for students whose GI Bill benefits are delayed due to Veterans Affairs Department backlogs, ensuring that students don’t get dropped from their classes or saddled with late fees.