Former Marine Cpl. Joshua Burch is majoring in sports management at Eastern Kentucky University. (Courtesy of Eastern Kentucky University)
Former Petty Officer 2nd Class Yahaira Pou, former Senior Airman Sheena Bright, Army Reserve Spc. Mark Hatch and former Army Spc. Cesar Marin study in Collins Park at the University of South Florida. (Courtesy of University of South Florida)
Only about 50 schools nationwide belong to the Education Department's Veterans Upward Bound program.
Eastern Kentucky University is not among them.
So the school created its own version of the program, accepting veteran applicants regardless of their scores on college admissions tests, determining their academic skill levels and offering special help to those who need it — in veterans-only classes.
"What we're trying to do … is not just talk about bringing veterans here," said Brett Morris, the school's director of admissions. "It's what do we do with them when we get them here."
Such initiative, along with what the school's president calls a "laserlike" focus on veterans, propelled Eastern Kentucky to the top of our annual ranking of four-year universities. Mountwest Community & Technical College, based in West Virginia, topped the list of two-year schools, while Colorado Technical University led the way among online and nontraditional schools.
More than 650 schools, a record, responded to our 2013 Best for Vets: Colleges survey, which consisted of nearly 150 questions.
The surveys demonstrated widespread efforts by schools to accommodate vets and active-duty service members:
* About 84 percent of responding institutions said they accept American Council on Education credits, which convert military training into academic hours.
* More than three-quarters waive late fees for students whose military education benefits arrive late, while about half waive interest, advance credit toward books and other expenses, or help students find emergency money.
* Almost 75 percent of schools offer online degree programs, which can be crucial for deployed troops.
But responding schools still showed room for improvement. Fewer than 11 percent of institutions require faculty- and staffwide training on veterans issues, and 43 percent had no such training available even for staff members who would participate voluntarily.
Half of schools have special rules in place to give service members in-state tuition. About six in 10 schools have a veterans office on campus.
School representatives contacted by Military Times said that a vet-focused president and administration are crucial to creating a welcoming college or university.
Stephen Abel, director of veteran and military programs and services at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, said he sits on 12 university committees to ensure that the veteran perspective is considered when the school makes important decisions.
School leaders don't follow every recommendation he makes, "but I've got to tell you, it's pretty close to every recommendation."
Between 2008 and 2010, the school's state funding dropped by $253 million, he said. Despite the limited resources, Rutgers created a school veterans office, as well as Abel's position, in July 2010.
"I think folks at Rutgers understand their responsibility to, as Abraham Lincoln said, take care of those who bore the battle," Abel said.
Other schools reported similar challenges in creating and maintaining programs for service members as coffers ran low.
"Resources — sometimes I felt like I was going around with a cup in my hand, asking people to support things," said Eastern Kentucky's Morris.
Marine veteran Joshua Burch, a junior at the school, credited its tutoring and veteran-oriented classes for helping him stick with higher education.
"It's probably the main reason I've stayed in school, because I've struggled," Burch said. "I think it's very vet-friendly here. They encourage you to be successful."
Eastern Kentucky President Doug Whitlock, himself an Army veteran, expressed great pride in his school's veterans initiatives, saying that in addition to showing appreciation, the efforts amount to a "strategic investment" that helps the school.
"When you talk about funding our institutions based on their performance, and a good part of performance is based on student success, it becomes not only the right thing to do, it becomes the smart thing to do," Whitlock said.
University of South Florida Director for Veterans Services Larry Braue said veterans also can contribute to learning and culture on campus by bringing years of wisdom and maturity that other students don't have, as well as firsthand knowledge of issues around the world.
"They come with a maturity that I think a lot of our younger students, and even our faculty, value in the classroom," Braue said. "They're just more valuable to the discussions."
At Mountwest, the school strives to repay that contribution in a meaningful way — not just with tributes or through high graduation rates but by making sure vets find jobs after they graduate.
"The only thing that I would tell other institutions is: Don't throw your veterans a barbecue and call yourselves military-friendly, unless you're going to get them a job the next day," said Cory Payne, the school's military programs coordinator. "Your program needs to have teeth. It needs to have purpose. If it doesn't, it's just a dog-and-pony show."