We must remove obstacles that keep veterans from earning college degrees

By Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Special to CalMatters

Allan Estrada knows a thing or two about the challenges America’s military veterans encounter along their higher education journey.

He served in Afghanistan with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, works at a community college Veterans Resource Center, and is studying for his master’s degree in clinical counseling at San Diego State University.

The list of challenges is long:

  • Bureaucratic delays in processing paperwork needed for tuition and rental assistance provided through the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
  • A 36-month limit on reimbursement for tuition and fees.
  • And a failure to apply toward college credit the extensive training in highly skilled areas that service members receive during their military years. 

And there are even more barriers keeping veterans from enrolling in college or dropping out before reaching their goal.

“It’s frustrating,” Estrada told me. “When you transition from the military to college, you don’t really know what you’re getting into. You don’t have an understanding of the benefits that are out there; you’re dealing with processing delays on housing allowances that are forcing veterans to couch surf, and on and on.”

If we are going to serve the veterans of our armed forces the way we expect them to serve our country, this must change. All 2020 presidential candidates need to sharply focus on the challenges our veterans face in trying to earn a college degree or credential.

There are several priorities that must be addressed:

  • Extending the educational benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The way things stand now, tuition and fees are covered for the first 36 months a veteran is in college. But, like many students, veterans can change their mind about what to study while in school. That sets them back in securing a degree or certificate, yet the 36-month clock keeps ticking. This move, alone, would make a significant difference in the number of veterans able to earn a degree before their GI educational benefits run out.
  • Bolstering the transition assistance programs to ensure active duty military know more about their educational options once they leave the service. Such programs should educate soon-to-be veterans about the nuances involved in the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the vocational rehabilitation program, and other services that can smooth a transition to civilian life.
  • Accelerating approval needed to secure tuition and housing assistance. As a student at Cuyamaca College east of San Diego, Estrada routinely encountered delays at the Veterans Administration resulting in late tuition reimbursements to the college and late rent assistance checks for housing.
  • Boosting funding for veterans resource centers at colleges and universities. In California, approximately 89,000 veterans, active duty members and dependents are enrolled at a California Community Colleges campus. More than 90 of those 114 campuses have a veterans’ resource center providing veterans and active duty military personnel the tools and support they need to succeed.
  • Counting learning from courses taken in the military toward college credit. The absence of uniform policies on awarding credit for prior learning creates academic hurdles and barriers for veterans who often have acquired a wealth of formal and informal knowledge prior to their enrollment as a college student. It simply makes no sense for a military intelligence officer with extensive training in cybersecurity, for example, to start from scratch when enrolling in college for a degree in computer science.

Our military veterans transitioning to colleges and universities face far too many challenges. A sense of isolation. Loss of camaraderie. Uncertainty about the classes needed to get them through their career pathways.

This Veterans Day, when we honor the brave women and men who have served in our armed forces, all candidates seeking to become Commander in Chief should remember their duty to look after those who have looked after us. More must be done, not just in California, but for the 18.2 million military veterans throughout the country.

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Eloy Ortiz Oakley, an Army veteran, is chancellor of California Community Colleges, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his past commentary for CalMatters, please click here.

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