Senate Hearing On Veterans' Access To Higher Education

 

The Senate Democratic Majority held a public hearing hosted by Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (Chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee) and Senator Eric Adams (Chair of the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee) to discuss and examine the issues faced by veterans seeking higher education upon their return home from deployment.
 
As Operation Iraqi Freedom and other overseas military proceedings continue into their eighth year, a growing number of Veterans return home from deployment to face a worsening economy and the need to comprehend their eligibility for new educational benefits. The Senate Majority intends to use the information gathered at today’s hearing to develop comprehensive legislation which will help veterans obtain the skills they need to succeed in the global economy.
 
Today’s hearing provided an opportunity for a public, open and honest discussion on how to provide the proper services and benefits for student-veterans, as well as make the higher education environment more veteran friendly.
 
Testimony was provided by New York State leaders on education, education equality and veterans education, including

  • Dr. Pedro Caban, SUNY, Vice Provost for Diversity and Education Equity
  • Linda Frank, Empire State College, Director Veteran and Military Education
  • Bill Kraus, New York State Division of Veteran’s Affairs, Executive Deputy Director
  • Joshua Kaplan, President, Albany Student Veterans Association                                                                                                   


Senator Adams (D-Brooklyn) said, “It is of critical importance that we raise awareness of the challenges faced by veterans in higher education and develop methodology for addressing issues affecting the college-based veteran population. Veterans experience an elevated college drop-out rate, and we must maintain an adequate campus support system to assist the transition of veterans from military to civilian student life.”

Senator Stavisky (D-Whitestone) said, “It is our responsibility as New Yorkers to protect the honorable men and women of the military as they have protected us. There is no question they need and deserve the assistance provided by the 9/11 GI Bill; however, it is equally important to identify the problems veterans face that have no price tag. Memorial Day is a day spent remembering the sacrifice of servicemen and women we have lost, but it is equally important to honor  those who remain.  I believe that the testimony heard today has been constructive and informative in the ongoing effort to help military veterans succeed in life off the battlefield.”
 
Senator Darrel J. Aubertine (D-Cape Vincent), whose office held a workshop with the state Office of Veterans’ Affairs last summer to help colleges and universities in Upstate New York better address the needs of soldiers as students, said, “The brave men and women of our armed services make tremendous sacrifices to serve our country and with Fort Drum in Jefferson County, the communities I represent recognize the importance of ensuring our campuses are friendly to veterans and active duty personnel. The hearing today is part of a larger effort to provide the best available opportunities at colleges and universities for our soldiers and better understand the issues facing them once they arrive on campus. I support this effort and am working to do all we can do to help our soldiers and veterans transition into civilian life.”
 
Senator Adams continued, “We must sharpen the tools available to integrate veterans effectively into the student body and assist former military personnel to reap the benefits of the recently enacted 9/11 GI Bill. We are honor-bound to improve our campuses for those men and women who have given so much for our State and our nation; we must eradicate the obstacles facing veterans and ensure that they achieve success in our colleges and universities. Initiatives that attack the problems that veterans encounter in higher education are essential.  This joint hearing is a first step.”
 
Colleges have begun to see a greater number of veterans on their campuses in the last several years as the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ongoing. New York alone has 80,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and more than 1 million veterans in total. The State’s public higher education system (SUNY and CUNY) is the largest in the nation, which provides veteran’s with many options in terms of local institutions of higher learning; as statistics show that military undergraduates are most likely to choose college based on location.
 
Problems Faced by Military Undergraduates
There are a variety of issues that veterans deal with when enrolling in college, military undergraduates run into difficulties when financing their education, properly managing time constraints, mental health problems and the overall transition from military life to student life.
 
The first issue that military undergraduates face is how to finance their postsecondary education. The Montgomery GI Bill failed to keep pace with the rising costs of college tuitions, which made it very difficult for veterans to pay for and attend classes, work and concentrate on their coursework. The tuition assistance provided by the Montgomery GI Bill limited veterans to choosing community colleges and other publicly funded universities, instead of seeking enrollment at private (and more expensive) college.
 
Moreover, many military undergraduates must balance family responsibilities with school and the mental transition from combat zone to classroom. In 2007-2008, nearly 50 percent of all military undergrads were married, while another 47 percent were raising children with or without a spouse.
 
Most students are 17 or 18 years old when they enter their freshman year of college. Military veterans, on the other hand, have served at least four years with their military branch and therefore are 22 or 23 years old and sometimes older. The life experiences of a 22 year old who hasn’t served in the military are already much different than someone who is 18. When you add the life experiences of a veteran to the equation we find that they are not only older than their peers in age, but also in what they have seen and experienced. Learning how to interact with fellow students at a college or university in comparison to working in combat situations can be a difficult acclimation and poses a problem for many veterans.
 
Many veterans return from combat with pressing psychological and/or physical post-war trauma, which makes the process of readjusting to personal relationships and new lifestyle extremely difficult. The transition to a college lifestyle can be difficult for anyone, even traditional undergraduate students, however, after being out of the classroom for so long it makes the process all the more strenuous and problematic.
 
There are additional cultural barriers these service men and women run into, as they find it difficult to relate to other students who may complain about the stress of their lives while they’ve never dealt with gun shots and IED’s. It is also difficult for them to keep their past out of the classroom because military undergrads are often asked about their combat experiences or faculty who highlight their background in front of an entire class.
 
New Soldiers, New GI Bill
Since 1944, the U.S. government has provided education benefits to military personnel, the first assistance coming from the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act. In its original form, the GI Bill was very generous for war veterans, as it provided a stipend for living expenses and paid their full tuition directly to the school in which they were enrolled, even the most expensive colleges were covered.
 
Concerns were raised about whether or not these benefits were being abused and in 1952 there was a transition into providing veterans with a single lump sum for their living expenses and tuition. This system maintained through several GI Bill readjustments until July 1, 2008 when the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 was signed into law.
 
Under the new GI Bill – the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, military undergraduates with at least three years of service on active duty are provided with financial assistantance pertaining to tuition, housing and books and supplies. It covers 100 percent of state school tuition, while providing an equivalent amount to those choosing to attend a private school. Moreover, those who decide to enroll in more expensive graduate programs and private institutions become eligible for the Yellow Ribbon program, under which the Veterans Administration matches what participating institutions contribute for any remaining costs.
 
The new GI Bill is not a cure-all, however, as benefits cannot be used at non-degree-granting institutions or for apprenticeships. Also, part time or online students do not received a housing stipend; a restriction that significantly effects military undergrads as these programs are used by the majority of recent military undergraduates.