Moving Student Vet Enrollment in Higher Ed away from Deficit to an Asset Model

Written By: Dr. Roger Thompson, IVMF Senior Fellow

For the past year and a half, my colleague Alexis Hart and I have visited colleges and universities across the country to see how they are addressing the rising tide of veterans on their campuses.  Funded by a grant from our professional organization, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), the site visits to over fifty institutions have introduced us to remarkably innovative programs for veterans.  Following IVMF’s impressive panel on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, we wanted to challenge the faculty and staff in the academy to move discussion about veteran enrollments in higher education away from a deficit model and toward an asset model.

What we have witnessed across the country is significant attention being paid to issues surrounding PTS and TBI.  We have seen a significant number of trainings on how to help faculty and administrators identify potential signs that a former service member may be having difficulty making the transition to his/her college.  While we applaud these helpful and necessary trainings, we find ourselves concerned about the potential impact that discussion focusing solely on these veteran “deficits” may have on a college campus.  If faculty are provided only a single training, as many are, on issues surrounding veteran populations, and that training focuses solely on the problems of transition or the symptoms of the signature wounds of the current conflicts, the faculty are being provided a very narrow and limited view of veteran students.

While transition challenges for veterans can be significant, our research and the veteran employment research that IVMF has championed demonstrate that veterans are typically an asset to a community.  Many have significant leadership training, a dedicated commitment to team work and collaboration, and a focus on achievement and success that promises to make them exceptional students.  Four-year colleges widely report higher GPAs and graduation rates among veteran populations, and almost without fail, the faculty we have interviewed want to tell us about the positive influence and maturity veterans bring to their classrooms and campus.  The expanding veteran enrollments, in other words, promise to enrich campuses, not hobble them with “damaged” students.

This is not to suggest that we don’t need to provide greater training on campuses.  We do.  Faculty must seek out veteran resources and make themselves aware of the particular challenges veterans bring with them as they negotiate the transition from military service to student life.  Perhaps more importantly, though, Veterans Resource Centers must make faculty training a priority.  The goal of this training should be, as Tony Dotson at theUniversityof Kentucky has said, to make VRCs no longer necessary.  As we will discuss in our future work, when universities aim to make the veteran population visible as a distinct yet fully integrated part of a campus, it is ensuring that when funding for Veterans Resource Centers dries up or is reallocated, the college campus remains a place that is not so much “friendly” to veterans, as much as it is a place that, in its daily functioning, sees veterans as another member of its family.  We should see this not so much as an obligation to repay our veterans for their service as much as it is an opportunity to make our campuses more dynamic, more expansive, and more inclusive.  In other words, it is an opportunity for all of us in higher ed to embrace the core function of education—to advance the common good.

Dr. Roger Thompson, an IVMF Senior Fellow, is a professor of English and fine arts at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), is a respected teacher and scholar, accomplished public speaker and award-winning writer. He is the co-author of Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline of Iraq, written with IVMF’s Shannon P. Meehan