An Education Mission for Our Veterans

An Education Mission for Our Veterans
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RCEd Commentary

When Adam Beatty sat down to write his college application essay, he faced a different set of anxieties than most prospective students. For one thing, Adam was writing from a desert in Iraq, where he was serving his second tour of duty as a Marine infantryman. For another, he was about to go on patrol, and had heard that a suicide bomber was looking to target U.S. troops.

Adam successfully completed his patrol, his tour -- and his essay -- before enrolling at Northeastern University, the institution I lead. But, he says, although many of his fellow veterans aspire to higher education, they often lack the support they need to navigate the college process, make it through, and make the most of the talents they bring by virtue of their military experience.

So as we reflect on this Veterans Day on how best to honor our women and men who’ve worn the uniform, one thing we can do is take action to make America’s colleges work better for them.

Adam graduated from Northeastern and now works as a consultant for IBM, but for many veterans, such achievements are the exception, not the norm. In 2013, unemployment among all veterans averaged 9 percent, compared to 5.8 percent among the general public. What’s more, 16 percent of recent veterans surveyed last year by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said they were unemployed, with 45 percent of this group experiencing joblessness for one year or longer.

Often, the responsibility for these outcomes lies at the doorstep of for-profit colleges that aggressively market to veterans but then fail to deliver on the most basic outcomes. The most notorious programs have dropout rates as high as 66 percent. But even the best universities can lack the foresight to recognize that the talents our veterans develop in active duty are the same qualities that will make them great students and successful professionals.

We can do better. The first step is to acknowledge the unique needs and circumstances of veterans as they enter higher education. For instance, it’s obvious that a 22-year-old who’s just returned from overseas combat is a very different person from an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. For the former, dedicated advisors with special training in veterans’ issues could help them with everything from managing the intricacies of the G.I. Bill, to finding the most appropriate living arrangements, to connecting with veteran peers and alumni who can acclimate them to their new environment.

But it’s not just about providing support. Colleges can also do much more to leverage the enormous strengths veterans bring to higher education due to their training and service. For example, by expanding degree programs that integrate classroom learning with experiential learning approaches, colleges can connect veterans with career opportunities and simultaneously give businesses the benefit of veterans’ teamwork skills. Colleges can even help veterans who’ve served in leadership positions board the fast track to management through career-aligned master’s degree programs that match their experience with high-level employment.

These measures wouldn’t just help veterans -- they’d help our entire nation. In many ways, the learning and leadership opportunities the military provides are the best career preparation program ever created. When any of us -- colleges and universities included -- fail to utilize the immense talents and capabilities of our veterans, we’re squandering an opportunity to boost not only these individuals, but our national economy.

In the theater of war, we strive to give our servicemen and women the most effective equipment to protect themselves and advance their mission. We should be just as concerned about supplying them with the tools they need to develop their minds once they’ve returned home. Our veterans have already achieved their mission on the battlefield. By developing college programs that are in tune with their needs and talents, we can help more of them meet their next great mission: living lives of passion, achievement, and fulfillment.

As educators, this is our mission. I believe we are up to the challenge.

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