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Veterans face issues in higher education

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Veterans or student service members face myriad issues when enrolling in college, experts told the Legislature's Select Committee on Veterans Affairs on Aug. 14.

According to Skip Gebhart, veterans' coordinator with the Higher Education Policy Commission, changes in the GI Bill have resulted in confused students and faculty and also means the HEPC is forced to help an overloaded Veterans Administration in assisting students in understanding their benefits.

"The state approving agencies had to take on a role of helping schools more than they used to," he told the committee. "The VA was a little slow to respond for a lot of reasons. They don't have the people on the ground. They don't have the expertise to deal with education. They can deal with benefits, but not education."

Approving agencies across the country, such as HEPC, have had to take on more of a consulting and training role to help schools cope with the high number of veteran enrollees and understand the GI program.

But now, in part because of a bill passed by Congress last year and implemented in October, state approving agencies' are finding their hands tied when it comes to approving or disapproving programs.

"For example, our assistance to our own schools is reduced," he said. "I can't go out and help schools like I used to do. The ability to train new people on campus is limited. It's difficult now for schools to get quick answers to their questions. I can't do it, and the VA can't get to them as quick either."

The Legislature in recent years passed a bill that urges post-secondary institutions to become more veteran friendly. Both West Virginia University and Concord University are working to make student veterans feel at home on their campuses. Gerry McCarty, interim veterans advocate at WVU, said the school currently has nearly 900 student veterans or dependents of veterans and is expecting more this coming academic year.

"We have many programs and services in order to help the student vets have a successful stay and graduate with a degree," he told the committee.

One of the biggest problems active student military members face is balancing their military careers with student life. Often, students are required by the military to participate in drill exercises or may be deployed. Reservists and guard members may be called into action following natural disasters. Participating in these activities can impede their progress in school, something McCarty said isn't fair. To help students, WVU is writing a drill policy that will give students and their professors clear guidelines to follow.

"When we have a mobilization and we have a storm and everyone gets called away who is in the Guard, they should be able to come back to class," McCarty said.

And in a time where many veterans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder following combat, some student veterans are finding they don't have many options when it comes to on-campus counseling. Concord University President Greg Aloia said his administration has crafted a handbook for faculty that includes 10 things they should know about having veterans in the classroom. In addition, a lounge in the student center provides a place for student veterans to get together and talk over coffee. Aloia said this lounge didn't cost the school very much money and allows students to share their issues, problems and experiences.

"They become some of our best counselors and front-line individuals," he said.

Aloia said Concord has a strong commitment to veterans and was selected last year as one of the most veteran-friendly campuses in the nation. But Aloia wants to see more West Virginia colleges earn that distinction. He urged the Legislature to consider providing some sort of mechanism to provide on-campus training for faculty and staff so they can better educate America's veterans.

Gebhart said although many student veterans don't want to talk about physical or psychological issues, there are some who do.

"People do need to be available on campus," he said.

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