HARRISBURG (June 21, 2012) Members of the military who are returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other missions face a whole new battlefield as they transition from combat to campus, according to student-veterans, state policymakers, and college officials who testified at a joint state Senate hearing in Harrisburg.
“Culture shock,” confusing benefits, inconsistent credit-for-military-service policies, social isolation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are just a few of the obstacles facing soldiers seeking to further their education at private and public colleges and universities, community colleges, and online schools, the hearing confirmed.
Led by Sen. Lisa Baker (R-20), who serves as Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, and Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-15), Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, the joint hearing reflected the cooperation needed among school and military officials, testifiers maintained.
While both sectors tend to operate independently of each other, collaboration can maximize support and minimize uncertainty, Baker said.
Greater cooperation among schools, soldiers, and veterans’ service organizations, such as local American Legion and VFW chapters, is also needed, Baker suggested.
“Rather than create a costly new bureaucracy to accommodate this latest wave of returning soldiers and airmen, we may be able to utilize outreach efforts already in place—our veterans’ service officers—to help student-veterans apply for college and financial aid, transfer credits, and navigate the path to success on the home front.”
“A statewide network is already in place,” Baker said. “We need to launch a more proactive and coordinated effort to link soldiers to schools, and schools to soldiers, and ultimately, to jobs.”
Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis told senators that 13,000 Pennsylvania veterans are now taking advantage of their GI Bill benefits. He also pointed out that Pennsylvania is one of only 10 states that allow military personnel currently stationed here to receive the benefit of in-state tuition.
Joshua Lang, Vice-President of the National Leadership Council of Student Veterans of America said, after a 15-month tour in Afghanistan, he found many schools claiming to be “military-friendly,” but not living up to that obligation. Lang said greater accountability is needed through the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, or a similar oversight mechanism.
John Cavanaugh, Chancellor of the State System of Higher Education, said in recent years, the SSHE has increased efforts to have a veteran coordinator on each of the state system’s 14 campuses, or to pool coordinators among campuses, and to achieve consistency with financial aid and portfolio assessment.
Piccola suggested that not only should outreach efforts be targeted at veterans, but at the non-veteran population, to foster increased acceptance and awareness among the entire study body.
Daniel Rota, Ph.D., Director of the Veterans Education Services Center at the Robert Morris University, and a Retired Brigadier General, recommended “institutional flexibility” for veteran- students, especially when deployed mid-semester.
Baker plans to convene a working group on military-friendly higher education this summer to implement a course of action.
“Strategies to improve access, affordability and coordination are part of the sacred obligation we have to those who have served and sacrificed,” Baker said.