According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of student veterans on college campuses has more than doubled since 2009, and the growth is expected to continue (1). To best serve these students, campuses need to understand who they are and what they need. But that is easier said than done. A quick look at what we know about these students sheds light on this complexity.
Information is incomplete and scattered. A major challenge for many campuses is identifying military students. Veteran services offices serve students who are currently in the armed forces, those who have previously served, and their dependents or spouses. A campus may also have ROTC or other military prep programs. In most cases, military students are identified by their application for and use of GI benefits. Sometimes, students choose to self-identify on application forms. In other words, the information about who is a military student may be scattered widely across forms and offices.
Also, determining who is and who is not included in the counts can be challenging. A variety of military students and their families use GI benefits. Sometimes systems record only the use of benefits, not the categories of users (veterans, current, family members, etc.). This makes it difficult to know who is included in the numbers. If the data lives in the financial aid or the veteran services offices, it may be unavailable or unnoticed by the rest of campus. Additionally, some military students may not use benefits or other services, so they go uncounted. Surveys which ask about military status and backgrounds will only get data from respondents who self-identify. The lack of systematic, centralized data makes defining this population and understanding their needs a major challenge.
Military students differ from other students. High-level data highlights key ways in which military students differ from their non-military peers. For instance, Figure 1 shows some comparisons using the 2013 Mapworks Fall Transition Survey, which highlights early behaviors and experiences of first-year students. Military students were more likely than their non-military peers to have strong academic behaviors, such as communicating with instructors outside of class and working on large projects well in advance of the due date. They were also more likely to have strong academic self-efficacy. However, military student were less likely than non-military students to build strong peer connections. So, as expected, the data shows that learning more about military students may be key to supporting their success.
But, you can’t paint all military students with the same brush. When looking at a student sub-population, the easiest approach is to try to understand them as a singular group. Yet, with military students, this approach is likely flawed. This diverse category includes current military members who may be balancing college and military duties as well as veterans with a variety of experiences and demographics. So a broad brush to describe these students misses important distinctions and needs.
Take, for instance, peer connections.Figure 1above shows the differences between military and non-military students in peer connections. However, is it simply enough to say that all military students may struggle with building strong peer connections? Let’s dig a little deeper.
How strong are peer connections for students who still have military duties, for instance? Or, what do peer connections look like for students who have been on a hazardous deployment?Figure 2shows the percentages of students with strong peer connections, but divides the results by 1) current military status, and 2) history of hazardous deployment.
The differences are significant. Current active, guard and reservist military students are significantly more likely to have strong peer connections than separated or discharged military students. Similarly, those who have never been deployed to areas of hazardous duty are more likely to have strong peer connections than those who have. Simply saying that military students struggle with peer connections can not tell the whole story.
Overall, as we seek to serve our growing numbers of military students, we need to look more closely. Stories of individual students, while powerful, do not substitute for data, just as broad descriptions are too simplistic. These students are more complicated than basic pictures and approaches. And they deserve our best efforts.