The University of Arizona Disabled Veterans Reintegration and Education Project brought together leaders from throughout the United States for a roundtable discussion to identify best practices developed to serve military veterans seeking higher education.
The UA and other university and college campuses in the United States have noted an increase in college and university enrollment among military veterans, particularly those returning from serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Campus administrators – including disability resource personnel, admissions officers, veteran advocacy groups and policymakers – met to discuss how best to serve the boom of veterans accessing higher education, a group they say will increase threefold in the coming years.
Sven Jones, with the Institute of Learning and Understanding in Bethesda, Md., who attended the conference, said enrollment of veterans pursing higher education will only increase and said the need for niche services specific to military veterans is essential.
"The biggest concern nationwide is how to integrate vets into the college system in a way that they will be retained. We are meeting to outline the major issues that might affect their retention as well as identify factors that will increase their success in graduate school or in doctoral work," Jones said.
Jones praised the sophistication of the UA and its structure as well as the quality of professionals the University has hired to serve students with both physical and learning disabilities, areas which he said will be key to serving veterans returning from war.
The UA's Disabled Veteran Reintegration and Education Project is funded by a congressionally-directed grant, which assists in the educational advancement and reintegration of disabled veterans. The project includes a research and outreach component and funds the UA Veterans Education and Transition Services or V.E.T.S office.
The UA V.E.T.S. office, which opened at Old Main in 2008, supports existing UA students as well as veterans who would like to attend or are currently attending the University.
Amanda Kraus, program director of the Disabled Veteran Reintegration and Education Project, worked to identify a network of partners and experts to invite to the conference "to identify trends as well as barriers in providing useful programs to veterans throughout the nation."
"Our program is very comprehensive – it spans different areas of campus but the focus we have, and have learned is the most effective, is to provide one-on-one services to veterans seeking higher education," Kraus said.
The V.E.T.S. office works with existing UA programs such as the UA's Disability Resource Center, UA Admissions and the UA Office of the Registrar to provide services and other resources off campus to veterans.
"The V.E.T.S office is our marquee program and serves as an initial point of contact for veterans on the UA campus. The center provides campus information, peer mentoring, socializing and is operated by veterans. The UA provides transition courses, classes for credit that are specifically tailored for veterans. We also provide administrative support in the UA Office of Registration that provides one-on-one help including information on the GI Bill," Kraus added.
Jones said that colleges or universities around the nation currently are not designed to manage the numbers and types of disabilities students that are veterans will have as they come to campus. "Ninety to 98 percent of university students who are currently accessing disability resources nationally have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or a learning disability, while the other 2 to 10 percent accessing those services are everybody else, people with mobility impairments or traumatic brain injury."
The veteran population that currently is accessing or will be accessing services on the nation's campuses, Jones said, needs or will need programs and services to address mobility impairments or traumatic brain injury.
"The thing that is concerning is that a huge number of these students will have disabling conditions, sometimes multiple disabling conditions, including traumatic brain injury, PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder or physical impairments," Jones added.
Kraus agreed. "These students are nontraditional in every sense of the word. This meeting provides an opportunity for those who are leaders in the field to talk about all of our experiences, resources and to reconceptionalize transitions and what transition means to us in higher education and for veterans."
The goal of the UA grant for the educational reintegration of veterans, and ultimately the reason for the roundtable, is to create recommendations for baseline programs that can be replicated on university campuses nationally.