Student Veterans are a National Asset

United States veterans, transitioning from an active military role to civilian life, may find that as student veterans they are in a position to lead our country on another front: the charge to educate more citizens, to increase the number of citizens with post-secondary education, and fill workforce skill gaps.

Student veterans have characteristics that can make them successful as they pursue higher education and civilian careers. “In addition to their unique experiences, veterans have a specific set of skills, learned through military service. When these skills and experiences are coupled with formal education through degree-granting higher education institutions, veteran graduates leave prepared to be powerful citizens and members of our community, ripe for promising careers and meaningful impact,” says Dr. Samantha Powers, Director of Student Veteran Life at University of Washington.

Student veterans are a growing population. In 2009 there were about 500,000 student veterans receiving benefits from the GI Bill. By 2020 over 5 million service members are expected to transition out of the military. Student veterans are a diverse population: 64 percent are white, 17 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic and 6 percent are foreign-born citizens. They share many characteristics of the nontraditional student population: On average they are 25 years old at the start of their postsecondary career; 21 percent are female; 42 percent work full-time while they are in college; 44 percent are married; and 52 percent have children.

Their education path is also similar to other nontraditional students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics: The average time delay between high school and starting college is five years; 54 percent are in an associate degree or certificate program; 44 percent are in bachelor’s degree programs; 61 percent take classes online, at night or alternative coursework on weekend; 90 percent of student veterans who take alternative courses take them online.

One of the biggest boons for American business and the economy is that 20 percent of student veterans are majoring in STEM fields. This can help fill a real skill gap in the U.S. labor market. While the number of STEM degree holders is increasing, the number of open STEM jobs is still higher than the number of unemployed STEM workers. The wages for STEM workers continues to rise, so the student veterans who pursue STEM careers will be able to find lucrative employment as they move into civilian life.

And beyond traditional STEM careers, student veterans will find that innovation and technology advancements in the workplace continue to create demand for STEM training. “The STEM supply problem goes beyond the need for more professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. We also need more qualified technicians and skilled STEM workers in Advanced Manufacturing, Utilities and Transportation, Mining, and other technology-driven industries” states the Georgetown CEW STEM report.

Student veterans differ from other students because of their military experiences. The veterans have worked in a structured environment and may find the less structured educational environment unsettling. Older student veterans often feel socially isolated from younger students whose activities may seem trivial. Having faced life and death situations that demand quick decision making, they may feel that class content doesn’t have as much relevance to the real-world as their military experience does.

For student veterans, college career centers and veteran organizations can help make the transition to civilian life a little easier. And student veterans’ personal skills may be their biggest asset. The need to follow a military objective through to completion will have taught them persistence that will help them work their way to graduation. Working with and depending on fellow military personnel will have taught them how to communicate, and how to find solutions to obstacles they may encounter. Susan Lighthall, a military behavior health consultant describes veterans this way. “They are emotionally mature, goal-oriented, mission-driven, experienced leaders. They work tirelessly to achieve their objectives and look for ways to make meaningful contributions. They are self-sufficient; they will only ask questions when they cannot find the answers themselves. They not only understand the concept of sacrifice for the greater good, they’ve lived it. They are respectful and protective of those around them. They think globally and bypass most things trivial or trendy.”