Mind the Civil-Military Gap

Military-Connected Students and the “Demographic Cliff”

By Lesley McBain    //    Volume 31,  Number 5   //    September/October 2023

  • Be genuine. If your institution can’t fully and strategically commit to serving military-connected students—especially student veterans—don’t do it.
  • Provide active top-down support. Boards and presidents are crucial to new initiatives to serve military-connected students.
  • Understand the positives. Military service teaches skills and behaviors that can be a real asset when student veterans enter (or re-enter) college. Don’t view them as liabilities; instead, understand the positive aspects of military culture.
  • Do the research. Gather institutional data on military-connected students at your institution and be prepared to collect new data as necessary. Also, reach out to your staff, faculty, and administration—are there veterans, military spouses, or military dependents working for your institution who can provide insight? Are there veterans on the board who can do the same?
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. National organizations and researchers exist to assist your institution in serving military-connected students; take advantage of their expertise.

As the “demographic cliff” of traditional-age first-year college students rapidly approaches, many higher education institutions are taking stock of their ability to attract, enroll, and graduate nontraditional students. The demographic cliff means institutional competition will only become keener and nontraditional students will become a more prominent component of enrollment management.

Yet one nontraditional student subpopulation receiving less attention is military-connected students. This is an umbrella term for multiple groups: active-duty military using U.S. Department of Defense Tuition Assistance (TA) funds; Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets of traditional college-going age preparing for post-graduation commissioning as military officers; National Guard and Reserve members; veterans using various education benefits; and dependents and spouses of veterans using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits transferred from veterans.

Given the number of students in this subpopulation and their guaranteed funding, their invisibility in broad conversations about enrollment-diversification is surprising. As Wesley Wilson, until recently director of the Military and Veterans’ Resource Center at Georgetown University and an enlisted veteran/GI Bill beneficiary himself, puts it, “Student veterans bring more money to college campuses than any other type of student. VA benefits like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Yellow Ribbon, and Vocational Rehabilitation are some of higher education’s most financially generous programs.”

For instance, in 2020–2021 (the latest available data), 223,943 active-duty military students enrolled at higher education institutions and used TA funds to pay some of their tuition and fees, resulting in $454 million flowing into school coffers from the U.S. Department of Defense.1 In addition, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that in FY 2022, 564,501 beneficiaries as well as the institutions in which they were enrolled received over $8 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill funds alone.2

According to VA data, the top 50 campuses currently enrolling all kinds of GI Bill recipients are primarily public or proprietary. Over 200,000 GI Bill students were enrolled at the top 50 campuses as of May 8, 2023—roughly one-quarter of total VA education beneficiaries in FY 2022.3 The largest recipient of GI Bill enrollments is the for-profit American Public University System (enrolling 18,000 GI Bill students and receiving over $62 million in GI Bill funding as of May 8, 2023).

There are many reasons why these students choose public or for-profit campuses, a good number of which are shared by their civilian peers. Those may include the availability of online or hybrid programs, desire for a credential or set of stackable credentials versus a four-year degree, acceptance of transferred credits, and/or family considerations that make on-campus study difficult or impossible.

However, there is one unique factor civilian governing board members and presidents, particularly at independent institutions, must consider: the civil-military gap in academia. Its historical shadow stretches back to the original GI Bill passed after World War II. And its importance to contemporary higher education and the demographic cliff discussion lies in the often-quoted George Santayana maxim, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

The Civil-Military Gap in Academia, Then and Now
One past example of the civil-military gap in academia is Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951, who felt the original GI Bill would make college too attractive to those he perceived as undeserving. His proposed solution was to administer national examinations and only allow those veterans deemed worthy of a passing grade to be permitted a GI Bill benefit. Further, he proposed that the federal government only pay 50 percent of veterans’ tuition and fees and require colleges and universities pay the remainder to further restrict veteran enrollment.4

Hutchins’ presidential contemporary at Harvard University, James Bryant Conant, also expressed doubts about veterans’ intellectual qualifications for college—especially at elite institutions such as Harvard. His proposed solution was to amend the GI Bill to only permit a “carefully selected group” of veterans to use it, and only for types of programs that would make up “the national educational deficit caused by the war.”5 Both presidents’ remarks opened them and their institutions to charges of elitism and anti-veteran bias.

This history of tensions has continued through the Vietnam War era6 to more recent times.7 Wendy Ann Lang—who is both president and founder of Operation College Promise and veterans transition advisor/lead, education and employment task forces at the George W. Bush Institute—makes the broad point that “Student veterans are among the most misunderstood and underappreciated assets to our colleges and universities. Today, the natural ebb and flow of support for our nation’s military has exacerbated this reality and curbed the enthusiasm to attract and support [student veterans that was] evident after the 9/11 attacks.”

Focusing more narrowly on the highly selective private sector, Wick Sloane8 has spent the past 14 years chronicling in Inside Higher Ed the dearth of student veteran enrollment at Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) member institutions. The COFHE membership consists of 39 highly selective private liberal arts colleges and universities.9

Given this information on the persistent civil-military gap in academia, what should boards and presidents who are new to the military-connected student sector understand about today’s military-connected student population—most especially student veterans?

A Genuine Strategic-Level Commitment is Required
Unfortunately, the civil-military gap is not the only long-standing issue with which institutions new to serving these students must contend. Unscrupulous actors began to target veterans for their educational benefits soon after the enactment of the original GI Bill; incidents continue to the present day.10 Therefore, institutions that have not traditionally recruited and enrolled student veterans must be especially attentive to working to gain their trust. That means genuine, strategic commitment on the part of boards and presidents rather than lip service.

As Jim Selbe, chief operating officer of the nonprofit organization Service2School and a Marine veteran with extensive experience working on military-connected student issues both at the campus and national level, puts it, “In my nearly twenty years of experience, I have yet to see an initiative that isn’t supported by the president/chancellor do anything but die. It has to be a strategic priority.” A best-practices document issued by the Texas A&M University System Veterans Support Office reinforces the importance of top-down support: “In accordance with recommendations from the American Council of Education (ACE), numerous studies and national feedback, president’s [sic] offices should maintain active support of student veteran programs.”11

Wesley Wilson further points out that strategy and moral obligation intertwine with this particular population. “With many colleges struggling financially, investing in student veterans is as much a strategic business decision as it is the right thing to do,” he notes.

Wendy Ann Lang also observes, “With the current and impending enrollment deficits, understanding the proven value of prospective student veterans in the areas of academia, fundraising, and equity and diversity has a common denominator with the stability of our institutions and the prosperity of our military families.”

However, this strategic priority must be genuine. For instance, the terms “military-friendly” or “veteran-friendly” can be a double-edged sword for an institution. David Vacchi, associate professor of professional military education at the Naval War College and an Army veteran who has studied veterans’ education issues for years, explains that institutions making exaggerated claims of veteran-friendliness not backed up by action are “sowing the seeds of a longer-term negative reputation.”

One genuine action, Wick Sloane suggests, would be to “commit to enrolling one hundred more veterans in fall 2024. No excuses. Just do it. Service2School and Warrior-Scholar Project have plenty of candidates. Or call me.”

If institutions are unprepared to take such specific actions, Vacchi says, “[It is better] to not claim veteran-friendly status and let the chips fall where they may than risk the long-term ramifications of questionable claims of veteran-friendliness in a declining-enrollment collegiate environment. The online for-profits have already felt this sting, but it is coming for other institutions as well.”

Jim Selbe concurs, “Do it because you want to do it right or don’t do it. Don’t do it to wave the flag.”

Different Benefits, Different Student Populations to Understand and Serve
As noted earlier, the military-connected student universe includes not only student veterans, but active-duty servicemembers, Guard and Reserve personnel, ROTC cadets, and military spouses/dependents. The broader term is used partly because eligible military personnel can transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to qualifying spouses or dependents. This is unique among VA education benefit programs.12

Understanding this is crucial. For example, a veteran might be using the Montgomery GI Bill or Post-9/11 GI Bill to complete a degree. A military spouse may be using a transferred Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit to earn a portable job credential or license. And a military dependent may be using his or her parent’s transferred benefit to pay for college but could otherwise fit into the traditional 18-year-old first-time, full-time student category. All three might require different academic or student affairs services, as well as benefit certification assistance.

National-Level Data on Military-Connected Students is Still Difficult to Obtain
More than a decade after the 2008 enactment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) still has trouble obtaining accurate data to analyze student veterans and other military-connected students. In a May 2019 report the agency noted that despite receiving data from the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA), the U.S. Department of Education, and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), difficulties remained. The CBO noted that the VBA provided data for each year separately “with no way to link data across time” and “for fiscal years rather than academic years”; in addition, it “collected different data on institutions than it did on beneficiaries.” The data “combined all student types (active-duty, veterans, and dependents) in a way that could not be separated.”13

In 2014, the Student Veterans of America (SVA) worked with the VA and National Student Clearinghouse on the Million Records Project14 to provide national data on student veterans’ college completion, time to degree, degrees obtained, and degree fields. However, this was a mammoth grant-funded undertaking requiring the VA to provide approximately one million student-veteran data records that were then matched to National Student Clearinghouse records with individual names shielded before being provided to SVA. There do not appear to be plans to repeat the project at the present time.

Selected Higher Education Organizations Serving Military-Connected Students

The American Council on Education (ACE) advocates for and researches student veteran issues and holds a Department of Defense contract to help academic institutions award college credit to military-affiliated students based on their training and occupations, The ACE Military Guide (acenet.edu).17

NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education has a Veterans Knowledge Community focusing on practitioners and scholars who support student veterans’ success; it runs an annual symposium on military-connected student issues.18

Operation College Promise is a national policy, research, and education program that supports military-affiliated students’ transition “To, Through, and Beyond” postsecondary advancement. It offers the only national certificate program for higher education professionals who provide veterans education services.19

Student Veterans of America® provides service, research, programming (including facilitating on-campus veterans’ chapters), and advocacy for veterans in higher education.20

Service2School provides free college and graduate school application counseling to military veterans and servicemembers. Its goal is “to help veterans gain admission to the best college for them while empowering each veteran to make informed decisions about their education.”21

The Warrior-Scholar Project partners with top colleges and universities to host immersive, intensive, and short academic boot camps for both servicemembers transitioning out of the military and enlisted veterans. It also offers workshops for veterans at community colleges and programming targeted to marginalized veterans. The programming is provided at no cost.22

Thus, boards and presidents should anticipate needing to collect their own institutional-level data on the military-connected population (if any) at their institutions or systems to better serve them. This may require new institutional data fields and data crossmatches since, as noted above, receiving a Post-9/11 VA education benefit is not necessarily equivalent to veteran status.

One example of detailed institutional data collection by a highly selective institution is that of the University of Chicago’s Office of Military-Affiliated Communities, which tracks its military-connected students (defined as “Veterans, Reserve and Guard,” “Spouse/Child,” “Active Duty,” and “ROTC”) in its annual impact report.15 To paint a complete picture, the office tracks both those who receive military-related education benefits and those who do not.

Unique Cultural and Demographic Issues to Consider
While no culture is a monolith, David Vacchi notes student veterans are more reluctant to utilize student services than are their civilian peers (e.g., academic tutoring, disability services, and so forth). Thus, institutions new to serving student veterans will have to market these services to them as a normal part of facilitating academic success without falling into the trap of viewing them through a deficit lens. A deficit lens views marginalized individuals as inherently lacking in some way rather than focusing on structural inequities producing educational and/or economic gaps. In the case of student veterans, the civil-military gap can also lead to misconceptions among civilian administrators and faculty regarding their inherent ability to succeed in college.

“The student veteran paradigm is not to seek help. And if they do,” Vacchi says, “it will be from the VA and not on campus. The issue is that this dynamic largely obscures the potential benefits of using disability services for those who need it to ‘level the playing field.’”

Jim Selbe concurs that “If they need a non-service-related accommodation, they don’t feel they have the right to ask.”

In addition, Wesley Wilson comments, “The Post-9/11 student veteran population is the most diverse cohort in American history. They are more likely to be students of color, first-generation, and hail from modest means—all demographics that colleges could do a better job supporting.” According to 2017 VA data, 62 percent of veterans are first-generation college students.

Thus, as Selbe notes, “They’re Googling colleges. They need a trusted source of information, one point of contact at an institution who can give them information about everything—admissions, financial aid, veterans benefits, housing….”

Taking a broader institutional stance, Wick Sloane suggests that institutions and their boards “lead reflective, probing community discussions of the civilian/military divide on Veterans Day and on Memorial Day.” Reflecting his experience teaching student veterans at Bunker Hill Community College and seeing first-hand the effects of war on many of them,16 Sloane also suggests that institutions “Commit to national leadership on resolving the question, ‘How could the best colleges in the world educate citizens who can solve problems without sending other people’s children to war?’”

Expert Advice Exists—and Is Particularly Important
While not trying to reinvent the wheel is good advice in general, it is crucial for those boards and presidents new to serving student veterans. Some higher education organizations focus on veterans’ education as part of their portfolio and some veteran-serving organizations specialize in it.

For instance, Service2School partnered with a small group of selective and well-known colleges and universities to form VetLink—a network of institutions committed to expanding student veterans’ access and opportunity for higher education. VetLink bridges the civil-military gap by simultaneously explaining to civilian institutions how military service prepares veterans to succeed in academia and guiding veteran applicants one-on-one through the application process.

In addition, institutions can reach out to campus communities with lived experience on the topic. Sloane suggests, “Connect and communicate with all veterans including students, alumni, faculty, and staff. See what they might need. You may have to survey alumni several times to collect this information. Include Gold Star families among alumni, faculty, staff, and your town.”

Conclusion: Serving Military-Connected Students—Student Veterans in Particular—Takes Genuine Commitment and Reaps Rewards
The military teaches certain skills, such as teamwork, responsibility, and commitment, that benefit both student veterans and the institutions they attend. Related to this, Vacchi poses an interesting challenge: “What we should really be doing is examining what ‘special sauce’ veterans have and trying to replicate that for all students, particularly non-traditional students.”

Wesley Wilson’s advice, from the perspective of both a GI Bill user and the recent director of a campus military and veterans’ resource center, is that “Supporting veterans on campus isn’t hard—it just takes effort. If colleges take the time to identify military-connected students during admission, help them with their benefits, and provide basic support services, their military student enrollment will noticeably improve.”

The civil-military gap in academia is not insurmountable. It just takes genuine institutional commitment to student veterans and other military-connected students from the top down—minding the gap, as it were—to bridge. Both institutions and the nation as a whole stand to gain from that commitment.

Lesley McBain, Ph.D., is AGB’s director of research and has written and presented extensively on veterans’ educational policy issues as well as other higher education topics. (lmcbain@agb.org)

1. Calculations by author using Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data on Department of Defense Tuition Assistance Program benefits (2020–2021).

2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Benefits Administration: Annual Benefits Report Fiscal Year 2022, https://www.benefits.va.gov/REPORTS/abr/.

3. Calculations by author using Veterans Administration VA GI Bill® Comparison Tool Data as of May 8, 2023.

4. Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, The GI Bill: The New Deal for Veterans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

5. Altschuler and Blumin, The GI Bill, 77.

6. Donald Alexander Downs and Ilia Murtazashvili, Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

7. Robert L. Bateman, “The Army and Academic Culture,” Academic Questions 21, no. 1 (May 2008): 62–78; Denise Williams-Klotz, et al., “Identifying the Camouflage: Uncovering and Supporting the Transition Experiences of Military and Student Veterans,” Education Publications 29, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 139; Jae Hoon Lim, et al., “Invisible Cultural Barriers: Contrasting Perspectives on Student Veterans’ Transition,” Journal of College Student Development 59, no. 3 (May–June 2018): 291–308.

8. Wick Sloane, “Student Veterans at Selective Colleges, 2022,” Inside Higher Ed, November 10, 2022, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/11/11/status-student-veteran-enrollment-selective-colleges-opinion.

9. “Consortium on Financing Higher Education,” MIT, accessed August 3, 2023, https://web.mit.edu/cofhe/.

10. David Whitman, Truman, Eisenhower, and the First GI Bill Scandal, January 2017, https://tcf.org/content/report/truman-eisenhower-first-gi-bill-scandal/; Veterans Education Success, Veterans with Student Loans They Never Authorized or Wanted, January 2022, https://vetsedsuccess.org/veterans-with-student-loans-they-never-authorized-or-wanted/; Frontline, season 29, episode 14, “Educating Sergeant Pantzke,” directed by Martin Smith, aired 2011, on PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/documentary/educating-sergeant-pantzke/; Lilah Burke, “US Veterans Defrauded by For-Profit Universities Fight to Restore Benefits,” The Guardian, May 26, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2023/may/26/us-veterans-education-gi-bill-fraud.

11. Veterans Support Office: The Texas A&M University System, Best Practices for Military and Veterans Support and Services, May 2016, https://assets.system.tamus.edu/files/veterans/pdf/vso-bestpractices.pdf.

12. “Transfer Your Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, August 8, 2023, https://www.va.gov/education/transfer-post-9-11-gi-bill-benefits/.

13. Elizabeth Bass, The Post-9/11 GI Bill: Beneficiaries, Choices, and Cost (Congressional Budget Office, 2019), 8–9, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED603137.

14. Student Veterans of America, Million Records Project, 2014, https://studentveterans.org/research/million-records-project/.

15. Office for Military-Affiliated Communities, Impact Report 2021–2022, The University of Chicago, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1lAi1EhfNurjYjo0kVcJ8uJV1nKMf9ADZ/view.

16. Wick Sloane, “Stop Sending Other People’s Children to War,” Inside Higher Ed, November 10, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/11/11/we-should-stop-sending-other-peoples-children-war-opinion.

17. American Council on Education, The Ace Military Guide, https://www.acenet.edu/Programs-Services/Pages/Credit-Transcripts/Military-Guide-Online.aspx.

18. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, The Veterans Knowledge Community, https://www.naspa.org/division/veterans.

19. Operation College Promise, Operation College Promise (OCP), https://ocpstudentveterans.com/.

20. Student Veterans of America, https://studentveterans.org.

21. Service to School, About Us, https://www.service2school.org/about-us.

22. Warrior-Scholar Project, Empowering Veterans in the Classroom, https://www.warrior-scholar.org/.

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