Veterans in College: Part of the Next Great Generation

FILE -This July 28, 2011, file photo shows the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. During his weekly radio and Internet a
FILE -This July 28, 2011, file photo shows the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. During his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, President Barack Obama faulted Congress for leaving town with several pieces of unfinished business on its plate. He accused lawmakers of being "more worried about their jobs and their paychecks" than their constituents, and he said he wants them to come back in November to finish work on a veterans' job plan, farm policy and helping homeowners refinance. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

I started college fairly early in life -- around 1972, at the age of 15. I was still in high school at the time, but spent the next year taking one or two classes each term from West Georgia College while finishing my senior year in high school in Carrollton, GA. I was living at home, working, going to school, playing baseball, and generally wondering exactly what I was going to do in the years to come. I was lucky in that I came from a household in which it was just assumed I was going to college. I was unlucky, however, because that assumption was so ingrained that I never really did understand exactly why I was going to college. So after a couple of changes of major with no real satisfaction about where I was going, I drove to Atlanta and enlisted in the Army. I was 19-years-old at the time. Since I did not tell my parents that I was joining the Army until after I had done so, it was an interesting evening at home with them, to say the least!

I wouldn't trade my time in the military for anything. It was a life experience that helped me mature, and allowed a kid who had not spent much time outside of Georgia to gain some valuable perspective. It also convinced me that having a college degree would be the best way for me to avoid spending a career performing a fairly long list of tasks and jobs that the Army had me doing. So, armed with my newly found perspective and increased maturity, I left the Army and re-entered West Georgia College. Although my story is uniquely mine, it is not a particularly atypical account for many of today's veterans who are returning to their hometowns and cities across the nation.

It was a different time and there were somewhat different circumstances in the mid-to-late 1940s when the Oregon Institute of Technology (aka Oregon Tech) was founded in 1947 as the Oregon Vocational School, with a mission to help WWII veterans learn skills that would allow them to reenter the workforce. Around the U.S., there were so many returning veterans after WWII that college campuses were being overwhelmed with mostly young men who had matured greatly in a short time and were focused on getting a college degree using the newly created Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill. More than two million servicemen and women attended college using the GI Bill between 1944 and 1956 (there have been several updated versions of the 1944 Act since that time, all of which I will refer to as "GI Bill" in this post).

That group of returning WWII veterans went to college in what was at that time unprecedented numbers. Many college and university campuses in the late 1940s had veterans comprising more than 50 percent of their student bodies. What many have called "The Greatest Generation" accomplished great things for the U.S. in their post-college years.

We now have another large group of veterans enrolling in colleges and universities throughout the nation. The current influx of veterans differs from past ones in two fundamental ways: (1) there are greater percentages of women and minority veterans enrolling in colleges than ever before, and (2) this is a long-lasting period of fairly continuous veteran enrollment and subsequent use of GI Bill over time (as opposed to the dramatic spike of veterans that enrolled in huge numbers immediately after WWII). Also remember that, beginning in 1991 with Operation Desert Storm and continuing through today with the War in Afghanistan, the US has been in military conflicts during the entirety of the lives of the vast majority of our current university students.

This new influx of veterans into our colleges and universities has the potential to help build the U.S. economy in much the same way that college-educated WWII veterans did in the 1950s and 1960s. However, that potential will not be reached if we do not graduate this returning group of veterans in a timely manner with relevant degrees.

Many of today's veterans are highly skilled in technical areas that translate well into degrees that are needed in today's labor force -- engineering, engineering technology, medical imaging, computer science, informatics, management, and clinical laboratory science, to name just a few. Yes, these are degrees that we offer at Oregon Tech, but that is how we started in 1947, so it is little wonder that part of that tradition continues with today's high-tech and allied-health curricula.

But it is clear that the focus, maturity, and added perspective brought by veterans to our universities mean that we cannot continue to do business as usual for these students. We need to assess their prior experiences and give credit where appropriate, and provide support for our student-veterans that will help them succeed in school. I won't claim for a moment that we have all of the answers at Oregon Tech, but we are trying. We have a separate veteran's lounge on campus, an organized veteran's group (the Oregon Tech Veterans Association), and even a veteran-organized competition, the Iron Owl Challenge, which pits teams from different universities against each other in a two-day competition that includes a range of physical tests with a distinctly military flavor.

We are preparing this next version of the Greatest Generation in our colleges and universities today. We are doing so with more choices of majors, flexibility of learning, added services, and recognition of accomplishment than ever before. And many of these changes for the improvement of learning apply to our non-veteran population of students as well. Universities and colleges are in transition. Students have always kept us on our toes, and as the new majority stakeholders in the cost of their education, even in public universities, they are pushing us to change what we do and how we do it for the new great generation.