Army veteran James Kumm started college as a sergeant in the National Guard. It didn’t take long to feel like he didn’t fit in.
“One of the big disconnects that I had was I was a little bit older,” he said. “I had responsibilities being in the National Guard that the average student didn’t have. I was very used to, ‘If you’re not 15 minutes early, then you’re late.’”
Then Kumm got a job on campus helping student veterans with their benefits working alongside a Marine.
“It was that sense of community that really helped me overcome a lot of the obstacles I was facing.”
Now, as the director of military and veterans services at the University of Texas at Arlington, Kumm aims to help the school’s military-connected students find that same sense of community so they, too, can succeed in college.
And it’s in part because of his efforts and other resources the school offers to its military-connected population that UT Arlington ranked No. 1 among 4-year colleges and universities in this year’s Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges rankings.
More than 300 schools participated in the latest Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges survey, which included more than 70 questions seeking details about the school’s costs, programs, policies and services that impact military-connected students. Federal data from the U.S. Departments of Education, Veterans Affairs and Defense, were also considered.
Adapting veterans’ services
The rankings come at a time when most schools have had to change their approach to serving students in the midst of a pandemic that has moved most learning online.
At No. 2-ranked Weber State University in Utah — which has a schoolwide Military Outreach Veterans Education Committee that meets quarterly to discuss military student-specific concerns — staff in the veterans services offices snapped into action, interceding with professors and administrators to get students the help they needed.
“There were some difficult times for students, but if students feel like you’re being a mentor for them, an advocate for them, it makes all the difference in the world,” said Charles Chandler, director of veterans services at Weber.
Luke McClees, director of the office of military affairs and services at Florida-based Saint Leo University, another top-ranked school, has also been keeping tabs on student veterans individually to check on their wellbeing throughout the last year.
“That really gained this very informal qualitative picture for me of exactly what was going on day by day, month by month for our students” — from concerns about online learning to lost jobs or food insecurity for their kids out of school, he said. He then reported their needs back to campus in order to get students the extra help they needed.
At Pierce College at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, part of a top-ranked community college system in Washington, Executive Director Mark Haskins said the school issued hundreds of digital devices to support traditional in-person students who were making the transition to online learning. The school has also seen an increase in enrollment in certain classes that previously had attendance caps, as well as in the number of people taking advantage of school resources.
“We’ve just continued to serve students virtually,” he said. “It’s never quite the same as in person, but in many ways, we’ve seen an increase in the utilization of services because ... people don’t have to fit into a rigid schedule of office hours, or they don’t have to travel to meetings.”
Justin Hauschild, a legal fellow with Washington, D.C.-based Student Veterans of America, said he hopes schools continue these types of supports even after they reopen. The organization is particularly concerned about access to financial aid, child care and mental health resources, as well as schools’ general awareness of laws and Veterans Affairs policies that specifically relate to military students’ benefits.
“These challenges are present in a non-pandemic situation, but they might be exacerbated in this transition of what has become our new normal back to what we hope will be our reality again,” Hauschild said.
Meanwhile, veterans’ education benefits have garnered national attention, as lawmakers passed legislation early on in the pandemic to allow students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill for in-person classes to maintain their monthly housing allowance at the in-person rate, rather than the housing stipend equal to half of the national average for online-only students.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most popular education benefit among the youngest generation of veterans. It includes payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for textbooks and supplies for up to 36 months. In fiscal 2019, the latest year for which VA data is available, 714,346 beneficiaries used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for school — up from 708,069 the previous year.
Service members are also able to transfer the GI Bill to their dependents while still in uniform and also have access to another education benefit: DoD Tuition Assistance, a benefit that covers the cost of college classes up to $250 per semester hour, within certain parameters.
Currently, those benefits don’t count as federal student loans and grants, creating a loophole in a law that bars for-profit colleges — institutions that operate as businesses — from receiving more than 90 percent of their funding from federal sources. Advocates say this so-called “90-10 loophole” has made veterans a target of bad-actor schools for years.
Yet as part of the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year, lawmakers voted to close this loophole.
Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, said there had been “loud consensus” from veterans organizations that Congress “had to remove the recruiting target from the backs of veterans.”
The new regulations won’t go into effect for another two years, so veterans should still be cautious when selecting a school, Wofford said — especially as scams remain rampant.
In April, the head of a for-profit, majority-veteran trade school in Texas, was found guilty for defrauding its students and the VA, and there have been other similar cases as well. Wofford said helpful resources for picking schools include government data on graduation rates and student outcomes.
“Trust the government data, and look at it carefully,” she said, also suggesting that prospective students talk with teachers and students at schools they’re interested in, as well as employers to see which schools they respect — and which ones they don’t.
“Be cautious. This is your one shot at the GI Bill and it’s one of the most important decisions that you’ll make,” Wofford said.
Rankings like Military Times’ are also helpful when considering a school, said Kumm, who grew up seeing the newspapers on military installations as an Air Force kid, and later as a soldier.
“It’s wonderful to have [the school] recognized,” he said. “I know that veterans and community members and veteran-affiliated are seeing that. So, when our university is listed as a top institution for veterans in the nation by an organization ... it says a lot.”
To see the full list of 2021 Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges rankings, go here.
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Military Times contributor and former reporter Natalie Gross hosts the Spouse Angle podcast. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.