Veterans Pursuing Higher Ed After Service Face Challenges

The Post 9/11 GI Bill has led to a growing number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan taking advantage of government grants to enroll in an institution of higher education. The bill, in addition to covering undergraduate tuition, also provides a more generous student stipend so that more veterans are now in a position where pursuing a college degree becomes affordable.

More, but not all. According to WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, a number of veterans that have access to GI Bill benefits still find enrolling and completing an undergraduate program to be a challenge, and an expensive one at that. Now a few local schools are developing programs to lend a helping hand.

Although schools don't keep track of graduation and drop-out rates on armed services veterans, anecdotal evidence suggests that quite a few enroll in college only to leave prior to graduation because they can't cope with an academic load while dealing with psychological and physical issues stemming from their service. Tom Voss, who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 is one such example. After returning home, he attempted a college degree twice – dropping out both times – because he hadn't taken steps to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder which made concentrating on his studies impossible. By the time he got help for his PTSD, his GI Bill education benefits had been exhausted.

Jim Schmidt is the veteran benefits coordinator at UWM. He says about 1,600 students there are using federal and state G.I. benefits. Schmidt says most succeed, but every semester a dozen or so drop out or must leave because of bad grades. In some cases, the students must reimburse the government, if they change course, mid-semester.

"It's a great benefit, but it's also a trap if you're not careful," Schmidt says. Because the financial consequences can be severe, Schmidt says UWM will begin requiring veteran and military students to meet with advisers when pondering a change.

A similar step is also being considered at the Milwaukee Area Technical College where many among the 600 veteran enrollees are on their second or even third attempt to earn a degree. Many suffer from physical and emotional problems that get in the way of their studies, while some just struggle to transition into a completely different type of life after years in the strictly regimented environment of the military.

Both MATC and UWM have boosted services for veterans and military students. The technical college created a veterans student organization last semester. UWM has begun offering veterans-only courses that focus on easing the transition from the military to college. The university has also opened a Military and Veterans Resource Center in the Union, a place students can go for information, support or just to socialize. It's where I met Army veteran Tom Voss. Three years have passed since his first stint at UWM; he's back, pursuing a degree in civil engineering.

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