Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
– Chinese proverb
Volume 75 | Issue 5
September 2007

No Soldier Left Behind: Veterans seek college education

Elizabeth Stringer

For several decades, a relationship has existed between colleges and the armed services. After World War II, many U.S. veterans returned home and decided to attend college due to the benefits offered by the GI Bill. According to Bound and Turner (2002), veterans accounted for 70 percent of males enrolled in the years following the war; this caused "total enrollment [to jump] by more than 50 percent from the prewar (1939) level of 1.3 million to over 2 million in 1946, with further increases through 1949" (p. 785).

Today, the GI Bill is still an incentive for the majority of those enlisting in the military. According to the Department of Defense’s Youth Attitude Tracking Survey, from 1997–99, the No. 1 reason (33 percent of males; 37 percent of females) those between 16 and 21 years old wanted to join the military was educational funding (Themes in enlistment propensity, 2000).

"The annual Department of Defense Youth Attitude Tracking Study (YATS) was conducted from 1975 to 1999 to collect information from American youth on topics such as military enlistment expectations, military recruitment advertising, and future plans" (Youth Attitude Tracking Survey, n.d.). And a 2004 survey done by Gfk Custom Research, and independent research firm, found that "‘money for college’ is the leading reason civilians enlist, even as the war in Iraq makes more young people skittish about committing to military service" (Farrell, 2005, ¶ 6).

Although the last YATS was in 1999, the military still tracks recruits’ reasons for joining the service, often through a short survey when a potential recruit asks for information. The "Request Info Packet" questionnaire at http://goarmy.com asks for the reason(s) the person is interested in joining, giving three choices: money for college, skill training, or travel/adventure (Request info packet, n.d.). Nowhere is the choice of "duty to one’s country," which was the third highest reason for joining during the days of the YATS, with 12 percent of males and 9 percent of females indicating this reason (Themes in enlistment propensity, 2000).

With so many joining the military or reserves to pay for college, it is no wonder that in 2006, it was estimated that 316,000 veterans were under the age of 24 (Crawley, 2006, ¶ 6). Today, as many veterans deal with the transition from war to college life, many colleges and universities are offering assistance.

Transitioning to college life

When returning from overseas, veterans often have a difficult time readjusting to society along with dealing with physical and mental injuries sustained during war. Studies by the U.S. Army Mental Health Advisory Team and by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suggest that between 11 and 17 percent of these soldiers will meet medical symptom criteria for acute war zone stress reactions to include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in addition to social adjustment problems (Returning Veteran Students, n.d.).

With some of those returning veterans deciding to finish or start their college education, universities are beginning to look for ways to support their returning troops. According to Joan Putnam, veterans coordinator at San Diego State University, the hardest part for veterans returning to school is adjusting to an entirely different culture and people:

Many veterans have a difficult time adjusting. One man, who has been with the Veterans Affairs for a few years now, has remarked about the transition. He said it was difficult to relate to the younger students where their whole life was so much different from where he had come from—war, death, survival—what is means to be an active duty member of the United States military. It was so different. (Fletcher, 2007, ¶ 3)

Located in a "military town," San Diego State University has about 600 veterans registered for the 2007–08 academic year, which started this month, and the California State University system expects between 2,800 and 4,700 (Fletcher, 2007, ¶ 2).

To provide a better education for these veteran students, California instated "Troops for College," a program initiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Fletcher, 2007, ¶ 7).

The "Troops for College" initiative aims to help veterans get into the schools, let them know what is available, and put support systems back in place—especially since many are coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder and must adjust to college life (Fletcher, 2007, ¶ 10).

Putnam said that the "Troops for College" program is meant to not only be a place to recruit veterans to attend college, but also to help them all the way through (Fletcher, 2007, ¶ 10).

Another college in California is taking extra steps to assist veterans. Citrus College is teaming with the East Los Angeles Veterans Center to offer the United States’ first college course to help veterans transition into civilian life (Quillen-Armstrong, 2007). "The course, entitled ‘On Course to Success,’ will cover combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other issues affecting veterans returning from deployment" (Quillen-Armstrong, 2007, ¶ 2).

Manuel Martinez, course instructor and readjustment counseling therapist with East Los Angeles Veterans Center, told Community College Times:

Research shows a large percentage of veterans will have some difficulties adjusting to the civilian culture and often their problems go unnoticed. A class like this will not only help increase the college retention rates of veterans, but it will also help them avoid the problems that veterans of other wars have encountered. (Quillen-Armstrong, 2007, ¶ 8)

Along with the veterans, family and friends are encouraged to enroll in the course to "find out how combat stress can be dealt with effectively" (Quillen-Armstrong, 2007, ¶ 13) and to help support their loved ones transition back to civilian life.

Also looking to build a support network, a returning veteran student, Jeff Memmer, founded the Military Veteran Student Society at Indiana University–Bloomington in April 2004. Memmer was in the Navy from 1996–2002, and upon returning from active duty, decided to attend college.

"It’s a very strange transition from active duty to college life for most of us, but we are working to change this," Memmer told the Veterans of Foreign War magazine (McDaniel, 2004, ¶ 2). Memmer said this about why he initiated this society:

Imagine: scholarship recipients, athletes, and other special-interest groups have a tailored orientation program to welcome them to a university, but veterans—many who have fought for their own country—aren’t given the same courtesy. (McDaniel, 2004, ¶ 1)

The Military Veteran Student Society has grown since Memmer graduated in 2004 and is not the only college veteran association. Several colleges, such as University of California–Los Angeles Law School, created student veterans organizations after Sept. 11 (McDaniel, 2004, ¶ 6). And the members of the group are not only soldiers returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also veterans from previous wars. "They come from diverse military backgrounds and have served all over the world. Yet they all share a common bond when immersed in a sea of students. They feel a sense of duty to help each other succeed" (McDaniel, 2004, ¶ 7).

According to Laura McDaniel (2004), a writer for the Veterans of Foreign War magazine, these groups exist to:

Provide a support structure for veterans adjusting to the university; promote community service; raise awareness for veterans’ issues; and establish professional networks of former military leaders to aid in a veteran’s career goals. (¶ 11)

Successful veterans programs on campus can make a difference in a veteran student’s education and well-being. The Johnson Veterans Club at Cornell University’s School of Business positively impacts lives, and through the club, Cornell has made efforts to recruit ex-military students (McDaniel, 2004, ¶ 31). Bill Hulling, senior director of corporate programs at the Johnson School and advisor to the veterans club, reported that after efforts to make the campus a welcoming place for veterans students, the number of veteran applications "nearly tripled"; "We have found that students with former military experience have the discipline, maturity, and commitment that helps them succeed here. Other universities would certainly stand to benefit in following our example" (McDaniel, 2004, ¶ 35).

Distance learning programs

Along with having support services in place for veteran students, some colleges and universities are offering soldiers still stationed overseas a chance to earn an education while serving. First Sgt. Delmer Traylor is encouraging his soldiers to do just that (Weaver, 2007). By day, the troops "gather intelligence and look for insurgent behavior on and off the base to keep thousands of other soldiers safe," and by night, about 40 of the 200 soldiers, along with Traylor, "hit the books" (Weaver, 2007, ¶ 2).

But these aren’t the only troops dedicating their free time to studying.

Service members across Iraq are using their down time at war to earn associate, bachelor’s, and even law degrees. Some use the military’s education program and work through Troy University or the University of Maryland, two schools that have long-established college programs in military bases. Some are doing it independent of the military, using their GI Bill to pay for online classes that cater to part-time students. (Weaver, 2007, ¶ 6)

Launched in 2006, GoArmyEd assists those serving overseas with completing their education. The program includes tuition assistance, counseling, the ability to monitor program, and e-learning options. Previously, another program, called eArmyU, instituted in 2001, offered online courses to soldiers. The two programs are similar, and eArmyU’s 145 degree and certificate programs from 28 colleges and universities are a part of the overall GoArmyEd program (GoArmyEd, n.d.). The goals for GoArmyEd are to encourage soldiers to pursue their postsecondary educational goals, allow Army education counselors to provide educational guidance, and collaborate with colleges to deliver degree and course offerings and to report soldier progress (GoArmyEd, n.d.). Since its launch in 2006, more than 225,000 soldiers have enrolled in a college or university through GoArmyEd (GoArmyEd fact sheet, 2007).

One of the eArmyU affiliated colleges, Fayetteville Technical Community College currently offers nine associate degrees, one diploma, and four certificates that can be earned via distance learning options. Students can take courses through the Internet, "College-By-Cassette," television courses, video conferencing courses, and courses that combine various methods of instruction (Fayetteville Technical Community College, n.d.). One of the programs is offered by the U.S. Army to soldiers stationed at select military bases. Any soldier who wants to participate in this program needs prior approval through the Army and to be processed through the Army Education Center before admission is granted (Fayetteville Technical Community College, n.d.).

Another eArmyU partner, Excelsior College offers military personnel more than 2,400 courses through
CD-ROM, MP3, and online for special reduced fees (Excelsior College, n.d.). Excelsior is a regionally accredited institution and offers more than 40 certificate, associate, bachelors, and master’s degree programs, four of which are specifically designed to advance the careers of service members. The institution also evaluates military training for college credit and provides a flexible way to earn degrees (Excelsior College, n.d.).

Although colleges and universities are attempting to make obtaining a college education easier to soldiers, it does not work for everyone. "Most soldiers say those with jobs in headquarter offices with air-conditioning and Internet access fare best. Those with ever-changing patrol schedules are too busy and too beat to study" (Weaver, 2007, ¶ 9).

Soldiers who do decide to undertake the task have troubles ranging from lack of sleep to trying to make it back to the United States on time for tests during leave. One student soldier claims the hardest part is the "lack of discussion time with professors" (Weaver, 2007, ¶ 16); "It makes it difficult. You can ask a question any time, but you have to wait for an answer," Staff Sgt. Edward Wilhelm told Stars and Stripes (Weaver, 2007, ¶ 17).

But when a professor is unable to help, sometimes fellow soldiers and offices can. "Artillery officers help soldiers with math. Lawyers share study guides with future lawyers" (Weaver, 2007, ¶ 8). And Traylor is helping his fellow students out much as possible. He "set up a special section inside his battalion’s Internet café so that the college students could have unlimited computer access without taking time away from others sending messages back home" (Weaver, 2007, ¶ 8).

The GI Bill

Those returning soldiers interested in attending college often turn to the GI Bill to pay for tuition and the cost of living. However, a realization is surfacing regarding the GI Bill’s flaws in not providing educational opportunities to all returning soldiers as well as not providing students enough money to cover tuition.

Originally, the Service Members’ Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, signed into law by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, was many veterans’ only access to a college education (GI Bill History, n.d.). "The original GI Bill of 1944 was intended to prevent mass unemployment among returning veterans after World War II by providing them with education benefits, unemployment checks, and home-loan guarantees" (Farrell, 2005, ¶ 19).

Now known as the Montgomery GI Bill, after being revamped in 1984 (GI Bill History, n.d.), it offers educational benefits to almost all active duty service members. The GI Bill provides up to 36 months of benefits for a variety of education and training programs. The benefits received may vary from person to person depending on such factors as eligibility category, length of military service, and type of training (Lawson, n.d.).

Since 1984, and especially with the war in Iraq, it has become clear that the GI Bill does not assist with the education of all those who have served overseas. Under the GI Bill, veteran reservists’ educations are not paid for by the federal government, unlike veteran members of the military.

As part-time troops, or so called ‘Soldier Citizens,’ members of the National Guard or Reserves do not receive the same GI Bill benefits as full-time members of the military. Education assistance lasts only as long as they remain in the Guard or Reserve. Full-time service members earn education benefits that they can use for up to 10 years after they leave the military. (Marklein, 2007a, ¶ 7)

When the Montgomery GI Bill was instated, only veterans who served full-time in the military received the benefits because those in the National Guard or Reserve only served one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer (Marklein, 2007a, ¶ 8). Those in the National Guard and Reserve were only eligible for the benefits while enlisted. This system allowed these part-time troops to earn an education while remaining active in the National Guard or Reserve.

However, with the recent years’ military conflicts, things have changed. "Nearly 600,000 National Guard and Reserve troops have been called to full-time duty for periods up to more than a year, with more than 425,000 deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or nearby areas"; and of those, around 133,000 have done more than one tour of duty (Marklein, 2007a, ¶ 10).

The holes in the GI Bill are causing problems for reservists who were planning to complete their education once returning from their tour of duty. During peace time, a member of the National Guard or Reserve could easily graduate from college during their six- to eight-year term; but, the war complicates the situation.

Tiffany Jenkins, 26, had to take out $11,000 in student loans to cover her final semester of college. Had she not been called up, Jenkins says she could easily have completed her bachelor’s. But her year working in a hospital in Iraq as part of her six-year term with the Iowa Army National Guard ate up three semesters of schooling. (Marklein, 2007a, ¶ 22)

While some members may choose to re-enlist for another term to receive the educational benefits in hopes of completing college, others, like Jenkins, do not want to risk another deployment and once again delaying their education. And, because National Guard and Reservists only receive educational benefits while
enlisted, "some 58 percent of [them], even those who have served multiple combat tours, collected no money for education" (Allen, 2007, ¶ 9).

Despite what may seem like a flawed system, the Department of Defense is arguing against altering the GI Bill, "saying that the current arrangement does what it is supposed to do—help recruit and retain members" (Marklein, 2007a, ¶ 20).

Seeing a need for assistance, some states and universities are making changes to help those National Guard and Reserve members who want to go to college.

The number of states offering a tuition break to recent veterans has more than tripled, from six to 19, since [Sept. 11]. Five states passed laws this year; several have proposals in the pipeline. Benefits range from a full ride for veterans in Illinois to a tuition freeze in Tennessee for Guard and Reserves mobilized for at least six months. They typically must attend a state school and meet residency and academic requirements. (Marklein, 2007b, ¶ 4)

While military veterans, unlike the National Guard and Reserve veterans, do receive the educational benefits of the GI Bill after they leave the military, many are finding it difficult to go to college for the money the government provides.

When joining the military, "all new recruits are given a one-time, use-it-or-lose-it opportunity to buy into benefits eligibility by paying $100 a month for their first year of service" (Allen, 2007, ¶ 2). Essentially, for the first year of service, $100 is subtracted from a new recruit’s paycheck, which will allow that person to claim the educational benefits of the GI Bill. "An average of 93 percent to 95 percent have invested in the [GI Bill] program each year from 1995 to 2004" (Fletcher, 2005, ¶ 11).

Those who do not have the foresight to sign up for the buy-in or were not able to afford giving up $100 of their paycheck each month, will never have the opportunity to change their minds or receive educational benefits (Allen, 2007, ¶ 42). Also, the benefits must be used within 10 years after leaving the military, after which time they become void (Allen, 2007, ¶ 2).

Only a fraction (8 percent) of the 641,000 veterans who signed up for the GI Bill from 1985–94 used their full benefit in the 10-year time limit. "The almost 30 percent of active duty veterans who bought in didn’t collect their educational benefits over the last decade, effectively donating hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury" (Allen, 2007, ¶ 2).

Of those who do collect benefits, the average veteran receives $37,500 over 36 months for education, giving them around $9,675 a year to cover the cost of tuition, books, and living (Marklein, 2007a). However, this only covers about 60 percent of the average cost of college (Allen, 2007, ¶ 8). This is far from what the original GI Bill did:

Gone are the post-World War II days when [Montgomery GI Bill’s] predecessor, the GI Bill of Rights, helped educate 7.8 million of the war’s 16 million veterans. That bill fully covered tuition, books, and fees at any public or private U.S. college or job-training program. (Allen, 2007, ¶ 7)

Not only are veteran students having trouble finding the extra money to make up the difference, but also many are having trouble receiving benefit checks in time to pay the bursar bill.

Because many colleges require payment up front, and benefit checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] typically arrive months after the semester begins, veterans often have to pony-up thousands of dollars in tuition, fees, and living expenses to enter school. (Allen, 2007, ¶ 5)

This often happens because "no matter when the vet notifies the VA, the agency won’t process [Montgomery GI Bill] paperwork until the vet’s school submits a certificate of
enrollment" (Allen, 2007, ¶ 10). And since some schools refuse to send a certificate of enrollment until classes begin (even though the Veterans Affairs office accepts them three to four months in advance), the benefits checks won’t arrive until well into the academic year. "Last fall, the VA took an average of 16 weeks to process paperwork, and they now average between 8 to 12 weeks" (Allen, 2007, ¶ 10).

Some college and universities know that paperwork often gets backed up and offer veteran students extensions on their bills. For example, Southern Connecticut State University and "Most of the schools in the City University of New York system certify students online well before classes begin" (Allen, 2007, ¶ 25). This allows time for the checks to be received from the VA before classes start; and, even in the cases where it does not, these schools often allow the veteran students to begin classes anyway (Allen, 2007, ¶ 28). Also, unknown by some colleges and universities, there is a box that can be checked on the VA form that requests a two-month advance payment (Allen, 2007, ¶ 29).

In recent years, some Congressional officers have attempted to address the problems with the GI Bill. In 2005, Rep. Rahm Emanuel "proposed a ‘Welcome Home Package’ in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the $1,200 required to buy into the GI Bill and increase the total education benefit for veterans on the GI Bill to $75,000" (Farrell, 2005, ¶ 14). About the proposal, Emanuel said:

They shouldn’t have to pay in to receive the benefit because they have already made a contribution—it’s called their service to this country. They and their families have given a tremendous amount, and we’re saying $75,000 because it reflects the true costs of a college education. (Farrell, 2005, ¶ 15)

Along with altering the amount given to veterans and eliminating the buy-in cost, Emanuel suggested allowing National Guard and Reservists to claim the same benefits as active-
duty military personnel; and Emanuel wanted to take the bill one step further by offering "health-care benefits to veterans and their families for up to five years after they are discharged and giving them a $5,000 tax-free contribution for a down payment on a home (Farrell, 2005, ¶ 17).

Although Congress did not approve this measure, others are still putting forth legislations that would alter the rules of the GI Bill to allow for better educational benefits. In 2005, Congress increased benefits for those National Guard and Reserve members who had been serving for more than 90 days after Sept. 11; however, these men and women still lose all benefits when leaving the military (Marklein, 2007a).

And "at least two dozen [other] proposals related to GI Bill education benefits have been introduced this year" (Marklein, 2007a, ¶ 17). With all this legislation, it is hoped that some amendments may be made to the Montgomery GI Bill to make it possible for all veteran military, National Guard, and reservists who want a college education to get one.

When you sign up to serve your country, you cut a deal with your country and your government that says, I’ll defend you in turn for a let up at college. The veteran has earned this over and above all other entitlements, and the benchmark we should shoot for is 100 percent of the cost. (Farrell, 2005, ¶ 48)

With many factors from the GI Bill to just trying to transition back to a normal life adding stress to the student soldier’s life, colleges and universities can support its returning soldiers by offering specialized programming, whether it be a personal orientation or a veteran student organization. Also, by teaming up with a military-affiliated program to offer classes online, institutions can allow soldiers to earn credits while overseas. But no matter how it is done, colleges and universities can assist student soldiers by serving as more than an educational institution; they can assist by living out one of our core values: caring community.


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