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ASU examines graduate, retention rates of veteran population

February 04, 2013

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or GI Bill, was first introduced in 1944 to provide educational benefits to returning World War II veterans and their dependents. Today, more than 760,000 brave men and women have turned to the post 9/11 GI Bill for help furthering their education. So who are these veterans and how are we ensuring they succeed?

As it stands, there is very little reliable data about the graduation rates for this growing population. The reason for this is largely due to the fact that veterans have not been separated as their own cohort, but rather grouped in with their civilian peers.

In April, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order to mandate that the Department of Veterans Affairs  begin providing guidance as to how this special population should be tracked. The Pat Tillman Veterans Center at Arizona State University has also made it its mission to increase retention and better track graduation rates.

Captain Steven Borden, director of the Tillman Center, says that in order to properly track vets, we must first understand the types of vets commonly found in the university system – these being active duty service members with tuition assistance, vets using any portion of the GI Bill, vets not using their benefits because they have either exhausted them or choose not use them, and, finally, veteran dependents using GI Bill benefits.

So what do we know about this special population?

Since 2007, 1, 280 veterans have received a bachelor’s degree from ASU and 313 veterans have received a graduate degree. In 2011 this population had a 63.6 percent retention rate among first-time freshmen. This number increased the following year when vets had a 92.7 percent retention rate from fall 2012 to spring 2013. The sophomore class has an 80.6 percent retention rate from fall 2012 to spring 2013. The junior retention rate for fall of 2012 was 84.4 percent.

Upward bound

In order to better serve the veteran community, ASU has taken steps to understand and accommodate the unique challenges they face when transitioning to university life. In many cases, these students have been removed from an academic arena for four or more years causing them to be unaccustomed to the rigorous coursework and structure that comes with being a student. Time management can also be a problem as they are transitioning to a predominantly less structured and regimented life than they are accustomed to in the military.

In these instances students may take a student success course similar to ASU 101 that communicates the available university resources and basic skills needed to succeed. Another option is Veterans Upward Bound, which reinforces basic math, English and computer literacy skills.

The Tillman Center also serves as a hub for service members. Vets may receive tutoring, academic support, counseling and assistance with registration from highly trained staff members. They may also relax and interact with friends in the lounge between classes.

“When vets leave the service, they experience a loss of camaraderie. The Tillman Center is a great place to feel that connection and unity again,” Borden said.

This year Tillman Center staff made it their personal mission to ensure every student feel welcome by meeting with all 55 veterans who were new to ASU.

“Our military advocate gave them the elements to succeed and also shifted their focus so instead of a military mission, they are now making earning a degree their 'mission,'" Borden said.

Borden hopes that this personalized attention will help them stay on track and leverage university resources to make the most of the GI benefits.

Sun Devils serve

Jason Brown, an Army Reservist and student at ASU, had tried his hand at a computer science program prior to entering the service, but found he lacked the discipline and focus to complete a bachelor’s degree. The values and skills he learned while on deployment gave him the perspective he needed to be successful upon his entry to ASU in the fall of 2011.

“I was young and didn't understand what an opportunity I was giving up when I missed classes," Brown says. "I am now back in the same program and I am happy to say that I have the purpose and discipline I was in such great need of before.” .

Tyler Jones, an English major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, can personally attest to feeling out of place upon entering a university setting. After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Jones says he experienced anxiety and found it hard to relate to his civilian peers who knew nothing about combat.

“To deal with this awkwardness I felt, I took on more classes than the full-time credit load of 12 credits to keep me distracted and occupied. Eventually, I developed a working rhythm and got my act together,” he said.

Both students credit a strong support system to help them adjust. Brown also praises the Tillman Center for their reminder emails pertaining to scholarship deadlines and veteran-centered events.  

While they are just two of the many service members at ASU, both speak to the success that comes from hard work and perseverance.