Universities Take on New Battle for Returning Troops

School prepares for increase in veterans as US pulls out of Iraq

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As the war in Iraq comes to a close the US military must develop another plan of attack: how to educate its veterans in a cost-effective way.

Universities in San Diego are already gearing up for the increase of veterans who will return to California after their final tour. However, they compete with for-profit colleges, which have attracted an increasing number of veterans

In fall 2008, 68 new veterans enrolled at UC San Diego; in fall 2011, the number grew to 149 new student veterans. Currently, the campus has a total of about 310 student veterans, said Christina Clark.

San Diego State University has also seen a large influx of veteran students. It has the largest military population of any CSU campus with 980 veterans, according to a CSU spokesperson.

Campus officials say the reason why may have something to do with the considerably generous benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, said Timothy Borch, who heads UCSD’s Transfer Student Services Unit.

The schools are also making extra efforts to market the schools to veterans. In the past decade, for-profit online colleges have aggressively recruited veterans. The US Department of Education reported the number of students attending schools operated by For-Profit colleges grew from 553,000 in 1998 to 1.8 million in 2008.

In many cases, these colleges are more expensive than private schools. Students are also less likely to finish their courses with the colleges, according to a Senate committee report.

“It’s easy to look at an ad for an online university where they don’t have to go into a classroom, and everything’s online,” said SDSU student and US Army veteran Antonio Zaragoza. “But the fees are exorbitant and the amount of money they have to spend is obscene.”

Recently, state schools in California have upped their ante in recruiting veterans – and just in time for the return of 40,000 troops fighting in Iraq. The changes have been noticeable in the expansion of SDSU’s Veteran Center, Zaragoza said.

In the past two years, UCSD representatives have been actively attending job fairs and events at marine bases to give students information for attending the school.

“We’ve really stepped up because we know that the students are interested, and we just need to give them the tools necessary,” Borch said.

Also, in the past four years, CSU campuses have received an enormous increase in private donations for veteran support centers and staff, such as SDSU’s $1.5 million veteran center, said Colonel Bucky Peterson, Special Assistant to CSU’s chancellor for the school’s “Troops to College” initiative.

Over the summer, CSU, UC and military officials from all California bases attended a conference designed to raise awareness of four-year degree programs. Their approach is more about attracting veterans who want to succeed in college, rather than just go to college, Peterson said.

“We recognize that the private for-profit colleges are marketing machines,” Peterson said. “We’re not marketing in the same way though. We shoot straight with them. We tell them about the academic rigor expected and help them prepare.”

He hopes with centers like the one at SDSU, CSU schools will attract more veterans to classroom alternatives to online courses. He estimates that about 60 percent of the campuses now have veteran support centers, most of which also have full-time staff members to guide veteran students through the process.

“Physically coming to campus is so much more enriching than an online effort,” Peterson said. “The student interchange, the ability to present yourself in a class, argue your points of view -- these things are so meaningful to the students that are there. And young veterans add quite a bit to campus dialogue.”

Borch and Peterson said veterans are some of the best students on campus. They provide perspective that not many other students have, and are often very willing to contribute to community service.

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