Wide lawns, stately buildings, the bustle of students coming and going to class most college campuses are a far cry from the mean streets of Baghdad or the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. But for many veterans, a campus is no less intimidating.
Catherine Morris, a veterans counselor at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., has heard it from hundreds of veterans: They are more afraid of college than they were of combat.
For these veterans, community colleges can be a lifeline, she said, teaching them how to be students again after years out of a classroom.
For others, community colleges are a less expensive route to a bachelor's degree or a quick way to jump-start a job search.
Two-year public schools were more popular with military students than any other type of institution before the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect and veterans continue to flock to them, even though education benefits now cover more expensive schools.
That's because veterans are a good fit for all of a community college's different missions, said Alberto Sanchez, a Vietnam veteran and the vice president of student services affairs at Glendale Community College in Glendale, Ariz.
In general, community colleges:
* Can serve as junior colleges, offering the first two years of studies leading to transfer to a four-year school for completion of a baccalaureate degree.
* Can serve as a school-to-work, or occupational college, where students can complete an associate degree or certificate and go immediately to work.
* Can serve as a remedial college for students who need to master basic skills in areas such as reading, writing and math.
"Veterans are not a homogenous group," Sanchez said. "They fall into all of these three areas, so community college offers a great deal of options."
More than 40 percent of military undergraduates (veterans, reservists and active-duty students) attended public two-year colleges during the 2007-2008 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That's more than double the percentage of military undergraduates attending public four-year schools.
The Education Department does not have data on military students since that program went into effect, but other stats suggest community colleges continue to be popular.
State directors of community colleges in 24 states agreed or strongly agreed that military veterans are enrolling in substantially larger numbers, according to a 2010 survey by the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center. Only three state directors disagreed, while 23 were neutral. And five of the 15 institutions that enrolled more than 1,000 students using the new GI Bill its first year were community colleges, according to Veterans Affairs Department data published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In his former position as military and veterans liaison at George Mason University in Virginia, former Marine Capt. Michael Johnson found that one of the biggest challenges of his job was working with veterans who wanted to go to the school, but were not ready academically. A lot of military members have lost the skills they need to be successful in a four-year college or never learned them, he said.
Johnson, now the director of military services at Northern Virginia Community College, often advised those students to go to a community college and get the training they need before heading to a four-year school.
Even if they don't need remedial help, veterans sometimes want to ease back into academia by starting at a community college. That was former Marine Cpl. Allen Hancock's plan.
He had been out of school for eight years when he enrolled at Glendale. "I had friends who had graduated from college. [They] recommended I go to community college first," he said.
The 26-year-old had to take a pre-writing class to get up to speed for college-level English, but he said the transition back to the classroom thus far has been fairly easy thanks, in part, to his self-discipline to study 2½ hours every day.
While the need for remedial education is not unique to military members many community colleges are reaching out to student veterans with special classes.
At Sierra College, for example, veterans can take a combined six-unit Boots to Books college success course and a remedial English course with an emphasis on veteran issues. A recently opened Veteran Services Center at Glendale offers veterans study space and computer access tutoring.
Different end goals
Community colleges are attractive to veterans both as junior colleges and occupational schools, the experts said.
"Not every service member wants a four-year degree," Johnson pointed out.
For such students, rapid employment often is the goal, and an associate degree or certificate is the fastest path to a steady paycheck.
"Community college is practical," Johnson said. "A lot [of military members] will be young enlisted. They already fell behind the power curve because they went into the military when their friends went to college. They want to get out in the work force as quickly as possible. Sometimes a certificate program will get them employed the fastest."
And if they want to go for a four-year degree, most community colleges have agreements with four-year schools in their state or neighboring states virtually guaranteeing admission and the transfer of all credits.
And an imperfect higher-education past doesn't have to come back to haunt you. George Mason University's agreement with Northern Virginia Community College, for example, looks only at a student's grade-point average from NVCC not his cumulative GPA. "So if you bombed out at Florida State University before [entering] the military, they don't look at that," Johnson said.
He asks people about their long-term goals. If a student veteran goes to community college and then applies to the University of Virginia, "what's going to be on your wall is a piece of paper from UVA," he said. "That's what matters. That is what your ultimate goal is."
For Hancock, the ultimate goal is a bachelor's degree in business management; he's planning to transfer to either Arizona State University or Northern Arizona University.
Price is less of an object for veterans who are 100 percent eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill than it was for veterans on the Montgomery GI Bill. But not every veteran has enough active-duty serice to be 100 percent eligible.
For those vets, community college is "a lot more bang for your buck," Morris said. Case in point: At Sierra College, each unit, or credit, costs $26, for a total of $78 for a three-unit class. At the University of Southern California, an undergraduate student taking 12 to 18 units in a semester would pay a tuition of $20,192.
The affordability of community colleges allows students the luxury of "sampling" courses to help them decide what they like and what they might really want to do, Morris said. They can pay out-of-pocket more readily, and save their months of GI Bill eligibility until they have a clear educational plan.
"Statistics show that students who have a clear educational goal and direction are more likely to succeed in college," she said. To that end, she encourages vets to take one or two courses in career exploration and/or college orientation, even though they aren't covered by VA.
Starting in August, however, veterans will need to be enrolled in 12 units to receive their full housing stipend under changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Taking a career exploration or college success class on top of a full-time load might be too much, too soon for some vets, she cautioned.
Of course, there are disadvantages to going the community college route, experts said. Some community colleges may not offer a robust online program that meets the needs of active-duty service members on the move for deployments, training and temporary-duty assignments, Morris said.
The college experience also is considerably different than a residential four-year school.
"A community college typically [doesn't] have a community environment like you would find on a four-year campus," Johnson said. "You are paying to go to school but not for that university life. A lot of veterans aren't looking for that, [but] some of them feel like they missed out on that opportunity because they joined the military."
Finally, some veterans complain that their classmates at community college don't take their education seriously. But Morris maintains that immature students can be found in freshman- and sophomore-level classes at four-year institutions as well.
"When you get to the higher-level courses, you have weeded out those who aren't that serious," she said.
For his part, Hancock said he hasn't experienced a problem with immature students at Glendale, and he doesn't think the problem is one confined to community college students.
"I've met some really immature older people," he said with a laugh.