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Learn About Student Veterans

In 2018, 669,922 Veterans used VA education and vocational rehabilitation benefits to further their education. These students do not fit the mold of the traditional 18- to 22-year-old college student. Compared with traditional undergraduate students, they are older, are twice as likely to have a job off-campus, and have a considerable amount of life experience before starting postsecondary school. Student Veterans also are more likely to be married and to have at least one dependent.

Characteristics of Student Veterans

  • Only 15% of student Veterans are the traditional age of college students. Most student Veterans are ages 24–40.
  • 47% of student Veterans have children.
  • 47.3% of student Veterans are married.
  • 62% of student Veterans are first-generation college students.
  • Of Veterans who began using VA education benefits in 2017, 52% were enrolled in an undergraduate program, 24% in a two-year school, 9% in a graduate program, and 15% in a vocational, technical, or nondegree program.
  • 75% of student Veterans are attending school full time.

Veterans are enrolling in higher education to:

  • Increase their career opportunities.
  • Develop new skills.
  • Learn to apply military skills in civilian life.
  • Improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.

Characteristics of Student Veterans (Handout)

From Combat to Kentucky
C2Ky is an ongoing oral history project that documents the individual experiences of Kentucky's student Veterans during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Interviews focus on each Veteran's military experience as well as their transition back into civilian life, particularly into higher education.

Make the Connection
Make the Connection shares candid stories told by student Veterans about their challenges and experiences of growth.

  • Today's GI benefits can be used for various educational pursuits and may cover tuition, books, and even housing expenses.

    • Meet Paul, a disabled U.S. Navy Veteran attending George Mason University.
    • Meet Tahitia, a U.S. Air Force Veteran attending the University of Maryland.
    • Meet Angelo, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran attending George Washington University.
    • Meet Josh, a married U.S. Coast Guard Veteran with three children.
  • Actively appreciating and valuing diversity on college campuses means knowing the backgrounds and experiences of students. Understanding student Veterans means understanding military culture, battlefield skills, and the lasting effects of deployment. It also means listening to students' stories and understanding the unique stressors that student Veterans experience on campus.

    Many Veterans enter school directly out of the military — some of them immediately following a deployment. Coming from a military culture that is vastly different from the culture on many college campuses, student Veterans may take some time to adjust. During post-deployment transition, it is common for Veterans to experience sleep problems, decreased attention span, and poor concentration, and some Veterans become easily frustrated.

    These transition symptoms are normal and often resolve on their own. However, if they don't, or they begin to cause problems in the Veteran's life, speaking to a counselor could be useful.

Students’ Stories

Listen to student Veterans talk about their adjustment to school by visiting MakeTheConnection.net.

Common Beliefs Developed in the Military

Military culture can be deeply internalized by many service members. Sometimes, core beliefs and principles learned through military service can conflict with the beliefs and principles underlying higher education. For example, following orders and respecting rank and formality may run counter to the independent thinking and informality encouraged in many classrooms.

Student Veteran Experiences

Veterans bring a wealth of positive experiences and strengths to their college communities, and a 2017 report by Student Veterans of America highlights Veterans' educational success. However, Veterans transitioning from the military may face some challenges in adjusting to college life. Surveys, special reports, and focus groups indicate that student Veterans have trouble with the administration of their education benefits, academic engagement, and social relationships.

Two additional reports highlight the experiences of student Veterans on campus, both in terms of engagement with education and academic success:

Academic Performance

Student Veterans' perceptions of their potential for academic success are mixed. Some report a readiness for schoolwork that is heightened by their military experience. Other students have concerns about meeting academic standards. Military courses and trainings can be quite duty-specific and practical, while college classes and assignments can be more general and abstract.

Research suggests that student Veterans spend more time preparing for classes and talking with instructors outside of class than civilian students do. However, student Veterans are less likely to participate in experiential learning opportunities, such as internships or practicums. Despite obstacles and challenges, the Million Records Project found that student Veterans and civilian students have similar graduation rates.

Social Relationships

Student Veterans may feel that they do not fit in with other college students, and finding like-minded peers can be difficult. For some Veterans, dealing with younger students who may seem to be entitled or less serious about their studies can contribute to a sense of being different from their classmates. Veterans may lose patience with their peers' complaints about the daily hassles of student life.

Bias against the military, expressed in various ways, can be another stressor for student Veterans. Professors and students may have negative opinions about the military and voice them in class. Readings and assignments may be biased toward a particular perspective on military conflicts. Anti-military signs or protests may appear on campus. Such expressions of bias against the military may contribute to a sense of social isolation.

When a Veteran is asked inappropriate questions about military experience or invited to be a spokesperson for student Veterans, it can interfere with building relationships with fellow students.

Veterans' social interactions may also be limited by competing demands. For example, although student Veterans and non-Veterans spend the same amount of time studying, Veterans spend significantly more time caring for dependents and working. Indeed, student Veterans are often considered "nontraditional" students.

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

Student Veterans and Disabilities

Some student Veterans are dealing with physical and emotional disabilities. Veterans with physical challenges may take longer to get to class or have difficulty taking notes or participating in classroom discussions. Take a moment to consider how the two most common physical disabilities can affect a Veteran's school performance:

  • Musculoskeletal problems (e.g., amputations, joint pain, back pain) can cause difficulty sitting for long periods of time, discomfort in using a standard desk, an inability to hold a pen or use a keyboard, the need for frequent medical appointments, side effects from medication, and limited mobility.
  • Hearing problems (e.g., hearing loss, tinnitus or "ringing" in ear) can mean a Veteran needs special seating or equipment, misses conversations, or has difficulty participating in discussions.

In addition, up to one-third of student Veterans may be dealing with "invisible wounds" of war such as traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, major depression, or anxiety. These conditions can impact school performance and the ability to concentrate and complete assignments. Find out more below in the "What is PTSD?" section of this toolkit.

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