Colleges work to attract veterans, keep them on campus

Adam TamburinThe Tennessean

Officials from more than 50 Tennessee colleges met at Austin Peay State University Tuesday to sculpt policies and projects aimed at attracting more veterans onto campus and into the workforce.

For some schools, those plans could eventually be bankrolled by state funding.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced the $1 million Veterans Reconnect Grant during his State of the State address in February. That will be enough to fund projects at about 10 colleges.

At the summit, dubbed the Veteran Education Academy, the colleges had time to flesh out their ideas under the guidance of national experts and leaders from Tennessee campuses that already have a sophisticated slate of veterans’ services — including Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State and Lipscomb universities.

Mike Krause, a member of the governor’s office tasked with boosting Tennessee’s college completion rate, said he hoped the positive in-state examples would help spur progress at colleges that have further to go.

“Right now we have pockets of great focus, but general interest from everyone,” Krause said. “It is not generalized brilliance. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

The influx of student veterans using the GI Bill to go to college added urgency to Tuesday’s proceedings. In 2008, a little more than 3,000 veterans were using the bill in Tennessee. Today, that number has climbed to 13,000.

Krause has first-hand knowledge of the challenges that face veterans heading from the battlefield into the classroom. He enrolled at Austin Peay in 2005, days after returning home from a tour of duty in Iraq.

He went from tight-knit camaraderie of the military to a sprawling college campus where the other students were younger and unfamiliar with his experiences. It had been years since his last high school math class, so he had to take a remedial course. He battled back feelings of self-doubt every day for months.

“Stepping out of a UH-60 Black Hawk was not half as scary as the day I set foot on this campus,” he said.

Experts said it was essential for schools to offer student veterans academic support and sense of community with their peers while also integrating them with the student body as a whole.

During afternoon work sessions, leaders at every participating college were asked to formulate plans they could carry out in 2015. Conversations varied widely based on each school’s baseline.

At Austin Peay — which has a satellite campus at Fort Campbell, an on-campus military student center and year-round events addressing veterans issues — administrators discussed fine-tuned changes, such as formalizing policies that excuse active duty students who need to miss class or tests because of military work.

But many schools were taking small steps, such as forming task forces to encourage communication between departments on veterans’ issues and to create a one-stop shop for services.

“We’ve already got a lot of things in place,” said Evelyn Nettles, Tennessee State University’s associate vice president for academic affairs. “It’s just pulling them together.”

The Veteran Education Academy will continue to meet at different campuses across the state for the next five years.

“We want to do this again and again and again, but we want to improve each time,” said Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder. “We want to make sure that these deserving citizens of the state get that graduation, diploma or certification so they can go on to their next chapter.”

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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