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Created April 6, 2012

Student Veteran Experiences on Campus

Almost all returning Veterans have adjustment issues of some kind. The National Center for PTSD, Returning from the War Zone Guide, an overview of these issues. In this handout, we focus on the adjustment issues facing student Veterans more specifically. Although research in this area is still accumulating, findings from surveys, special reports and focus groups indicate that student Veterans can struggle with school administration, academic performance, social relationships, and disabilities.

School Administration

Student Veterans consistently report that the Post 9/11 GI Bill helped with their adjustment to school. Almost 25% of student Veterans report that the Post 9/11 bill was a major influence in their decision to pursue higher education. Nonetheless, negotiating GI Educational Benefits and transferring credits obtained while in the military are two stressful experiences reported by student Veterans.

Negotiating Government Issued (GI) Educational Benefits

  • Student Veterans report difficulty with getting their GI Bill benefits in place, especially Post-9/11 benefits. Keeping track of payments, late payments, and even overpayments were reported as problematic, especially early on.
  • Although many schools provide priority registration for student Veterans, enrollment in classes or being dropped from classes because of late payment introduced some hardship.
  • Even with GI Bill benefits, about 66% of student Veterans report struggles with supporting themselves and their family while they attend school.

Transferring Credits

  • Although the American Council on Education provides guidelines for evaluating the educational experiences of Service Members, and certain institutions are recognized as Service Member Opportunity Colleges (SIC), some student Veterans report difficulty with credit transfer rules, especially if they are attending a public institution.
  • The average number of transfer credits is about 18, with an average of 12 for public two year schools and 24 for private institutions.

Academic Performance

Student Veterans report mixed concerns about academic success. Some report a readiness for school work that is heightened by their military experience. For example, one student Veteran introduced himself to professors at the beginning of each semester as follows, "I’m 25. I’m a Veteran. I’m not here to party. I’m here to work". Other student Veterans report concerns about performing up to academic standards. Courses and trainings in the military can be quite different (e.g., duty specific, practical), than college classes. As a whole, research findings suggest that student Veterans are less academically engaged and perceive lower levels of support from their campuses than non-Veterans.

Social Relationships

Student Veterans may find that they do not fit in with other college students. Finding like-minded peers on campus can be difficult. Dealing with younger students who may be perceived as being overly entitled or not serious about their studies can contribute to a sense of being different. It can be difficult for student Veterans to be patient with complaints about the daily hassles of being a student.

Biases against the military may be another stressor for student Veterans. Biases can be expressed in many ways on college campuses. Professors and students may hold strong negative opinions about the military and voice them in class. Readings and assignments may be biased toward a particular perspective. Antimilitary signs and/or protestors against the military may be on campus. These kinds of biases against the military may contribute to a sense of social isolation

Being asked inappropriate questions about their military experience, or being asked to be a spokesperson for student Veterans can also interfere with relationship building. Social interactions are also limited by competing demands. For example, although student Veterans spend the same amount of time studying as non-Veterans, they spend significantly more time working and caring for dependents. Indeed, student Veterans are often considered "nontraditional" students.

Unlike traditional undergraduates who often enroll in college immediately after high school, attend school full time, receive financial support from parents, and are single without dependents, student Veterans are older, married or coupled, attend school part-time, and are more likely to be working and using the GI benefits to pay for their education. Research shows that close to 60% of student Veterans report concerns about balancing school and other responsibilities.

Student Veterans and Disabilities

Other problems that some student Veterans face are physical and emotional disabilities. Physical problems may mean that it takes a student Veteran longer to get to class. Other physical problems may interfere with note taking or classroom participation. The two most common physical disabilities are listed below. Take a moment to consider how these may impact school performance:

  • Musculoskeletal problems (e.g., amputations, joint pain, back pain).
    • Possible impact: Difficulty sitting for long periods of time, uncomfortable in standard desk, unable to hold pen/pencil or use a keyboard, frequent medical appointments, medication side-effects, mobility.
  • Hearing problems (e.g., hearing loss, tinnitus ("ringing" in ear)).
    • Possible impact: Need for special seating or equipment, annoyance, missed conversations, difficulty "jumping in".

Up to one-third of student Veterans may be struggling with "invisible wounds" of war: traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, or major depression. These conditions can also impact school performance. For example, all three "invisible wounds" can impact the ability to concentrate and complete assignments. Find out more in the What is PTSD? section of this toolkit.


Milliken, C.S., Auchterlonie, J.L., & Hoge, C.W. (2007). Longitudinal assessment of mental health problems among active and reserve component solders returning from the Iraq war. JAMA, 298, 2141‐2148.

National Survey of Student Engagement. (2010). Major differences: Examining student engagement by field of study – annual results 2010. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

Seal, K.H., Bertenthal, D., Miner, C.R., Saunak, S., & Marmar, C. (2007). Bringing the war back home. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167, 476-482.

Steele, J., Salcedo, N., & Coley, J. (2010). Service members in school: Military Veterans’ experiences using the Post‐9/11 GI Bill and pursuing postsecondary education. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Tanielian, T.L., & Jaycox, L.H. (2008). Invisible wounds of war: Psychological and cognitive injuries, their consequences, and services to assist recovery. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.