Veterans Flocking to Higher Education, But Some Face Obstacles

Feb 18, 2013

A record number of veterans are heading back to school. One incentive has been the Post 9/11 GI Bill. It enhanced education benefits, starting in 2009. They now cover undergraduate tuition and provide veterans with a monthly living allowance and book stipend. To be eligible, a vet must have served on active duty after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and not exhausted prior GI benefits.

No matter what federal or state aid former soldiers have received however, WUWM’s Erin Toner learned that some have found the transition to school difficult and even costly. Local schools are intervening.

Army veteran Tom Voss is back at UWM after dropping out of college twice since leaving the military.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tom Voss served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. His Army unit conducted reconnaissance missions, while the country prepared to elect a transitional government.

“One of our jobs was to secure election sites, couple days before, usually 72 hours before either a mission or those elections took place so we basically worked in groups of three, sometimes with a sniper team, to secure those areas,” Voss says.

Voss says the job was dangerous. Explosives and ambushes killed his platoon sergeant, squad leader and several fellow soldiers. When he came home, Voss thought college seemed like his best option. He enrolled at MATC.

“I tried going back to school right away and I definitely was not in a position where I should have been in school. I basically just did it to keep busy so I didn’t have to sit and contemplate what I had been through,” Voss says.

While Voss did seek treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he could not focus on his studies. So, he dropped out of MATC, yet soon after, enrolled at UWM, thinking he’d give school another try.

“Took a full load, took 15 credits, and ended up dropping out,” Voss says.

Voss says not only did he waste time, he used up all his G.I. Bill education benefits.

While enrollment has skyrocketed among returning service members, most schools don’t keep data on veteran graduation and dropout rates, so it’s difficult to know whether that group fares differently than other students.

UWM recently opened a Military and Veterans Resource Center in the Union.

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 advisors when pondering a change.

“If they want to add or drop classes, they would have to consult with our office first just to explore why and what the ramifications might be,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt’s counterpart at Milwaukee Area Technical College also sees veterans drop out and fall into debt.

Student Service Specialist Maria Abrego says about 600 vets are enrolled at MATC -- many attempting for a second or third time to earn a degree.

“I’ve had a few that had medical issues. We have some that suffer from PTSD. We have some who couldn’t adapt to transitioning from the military to civilian life. You know sometimes maybe they’re just not ready,” Abrego says.

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.

“So now I’m paying for school out of pocket, when I should have taken some more time to address my issues before taking on school basically,” Voss says.

Voss wishes campuses had offered more services when he first enrolled.

“Veterans, after they get out, they don’t know exactly what they want to do, but they know they want to get a degree and its really beneficial to speak with a veteran who’s been through the college life before and has used their benefits just to get that advice before you even take the first step,” Voss says.