Serving working adult student veterans

Veterans Day is both a time to honor and thank those who served in the military and an opportunity to reflect on ways in which we as an education ecosystem can better serve this important student population. 

Guild is proud to partner with many institutions that make student veterans a priority, and we asked Oregon State University (OSU) —a Guild partner and one of the top-rated online universities for veterans in the nation— to share insights about understanding and meeting the needs of students who have served. We spoke with Jessica DuPont, an executive director at OSU’s Ecampus, and Willie Elfering, Military and Veteran Resource Advisor at OSU, about some of the ways the university is helping veterans navigate their benefits, enjoy a successful student experience, and access community and belonging. 

  • Recognize the value veterans bring.

    Working adult student veterans bring unique value to the classroom as well as the workplace. Although at times their needs will differ from non-veteran students, it is essential not to fix an institutional mindset in deficit-based thinking. “They’ve had a life. They come with experience. They come with different tools,” Elfering observes, and points out that veterans’ lived experience can differentiate how they approach learning and enrich discourse in school and at work. “Their skillset helps them recognize when opinions are taught instead of when facts are taught, and they’ll challenge that.”

Additionally, student veterans often bring well-developed leadership and team-oriented durable skills with them into the classroom. Finding ways to highlight how their experiences in the military can help them succeed in school and in the workplace through making connections between their skillsets and prospective career paths is critical. 

  • Provide robust support to help students navigate systems and their learner experience.

    Veteran working adult students face similar challenges as their peers: they have to balance work and education, as older students they often have family and personal obligations, and many are parents or have other caregiving responsibilities. They therefore need the same resources and inclusive approach that institutions intentional about serving working adult students provide, such as flexible online learning, and online access to the same support and resources that benefit students who learn on campus. “We have a care team approach at OSU to ensure that our online military students feel supported,” DuPont says. “They need to have the option to connect and access resources in a virtual environment.” OSU Ecampus provides coaching for bachelor’s students studying online to help ensure student success through addressing many top-of-mind concerns that working adults face, such as time management, work-life balance, online learning support, and navigating resources. 

There are unique considerations for student veterans as well. Veteran benefits can be challenging for prospective students to navigate. VA education assistance, including transfer credits, application fee deferral, and financial aid for veterans and actively serving students are hallmarks of an institutional commitment to helping veterans achieve their educational goals. OSU’s Ecampus honors military education benefits to ensure that working adult student veterans have equitable opportunity to access learning online. Ecampus also set up a military ambassadors program to help foster connection between students and alumni.

Part of the responsibility that universities committed to serving veterans will take on is advocating for them. DuPont shares that allowances provided under the GI Bill —in particular housing allowances— are not allocated in the same way for online students as they are on-campus students, leading on-campus learners to receive hundreds of dollars more per month for housing costs than their online counterparts. As many online students are self-supporting working adults who need the flexibility that comes with online or asynchronous learning, some online learners may have markedly greater financial need than students who can attend class on campus. OSU has been vocal about the need to rectify this disparity, and DuPont lays out a few approaches universities can take to help make college more affordable for online veteran and military learners, including reducing barriers, increasing scholarships and grants for military-connected students, and partnering with colleges to match funds to award scholarships to online students.

  • Build an accessible, inclusive community.

    OSU’s military-connected community consists of 1,900 students (including veterans, students who are actively serving, and family members). Elfering notes that despite the diversity of the community, students’ military status can at times appear to supersede other important facets of their identities. Recognizing a need for intersectionality within the military-connected community, OSU built three identity groups within this community for students who identify as LGBTQ+, women, and students of color. “Building identity groups can help more students participate in our community, and help us grow,” Elfering says. “We work to hear identity and make sure everyone has a seat at the table.” 

Another major aspect of community-building is peer support. Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE), a model developed at the University of Michigan, provides outreach, a website full of resources, and peer support for veteran students pursuing a college education via the Post 9-11 GI Bill. OSU is one of 45 partner campuses that participate in the PAVE initiative, and the university is working to extend its PAVE outreach to Ecampus students as well. Veteran students are automatically enrolled (and can opt out), and first-term students are contacted on a regular basis by a peer who will check in, help ensure they are aware of their benefits, answer questions, and foster connection. 

There are many ways institutions can help veteran students. Holistically examining the wraparound supports available to veterans throughout their student journey, from navigating the application process through outcomes post-graduation, institutions can begin to uncover areas where additional support will have the greatest impact.  

Visit OSU’s Ecampus to learn more about the services the university provides to student veterans.