NEW YORK – If his door is open, you can bet student veterans are spilling out of Eric Glaude's office at Borough of Manhattan Community College. On most days, it's standing-room only because his broom closet of an office has become the de facto command central for student veterans.
Space has been at a premium since Sept. 11, 2001, when the school's Fiterman Hall was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center. Add to that a mushrooming student population. More than 400 veterans were enrolled last year, up from 157 in 2009, when Glaude, a disabled Vietnam War-era veteran, was hired to help former servicemembers make the transition from combat to college.
Their ranks at schools across the nation are likely to continue to climb as the drawdown in Afghanistan continues. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, enacted in 2008, has paved the way for hundreds of thousands of recent veterans to enroll in college. Of 923,836 servicemembers who received federal education benefits last year, 555,329 served after 9/11, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Although the benefits enable them to go to college, some veterans say it's the camaraderie and support they get on campus that determines whether they finish.
"A lot of us are loners. When you get out of the military, you kind of don't know where you're at," says retired Marine Vincent Acevedo, 26, who is set to receive his associate's degree in criminal justice Friday. "That's what the veterans group is for, to let you know you're not alone."
This year marks a milestone for the school: 26 veterans will graduate, up from six last year. Other schools, too, are reporting their largest graduating classes of veterans in recent history. More than 100 vets were honored at ceremonies this month at Columbia University. Salt Lake Community College conferred degrees on 187 veterans.
Acevedo, who struggles with short-term memory lapses caused by an explosion in 2006 outside Baghdad that slammed him into a wall, is a campus success story, says Glaude, who offers what he calls "little wrinkles and strategies" for navigating the red tape and managing coursework. The road to a college degree is often bumpy. Some veterans may not have cracked a book in years and become overwhelmed by the relatively unstructured rhythm of student life, or they find themselves at odds with faculty or younger classmates.
Glaude estimates that 1% of his veterans each year "just can't seem to make it," often because their emotional wounds are too burdensome.
Nationally, no one keeps track of how many drop out. To address that lack of information, President Obama last month ordered the VA, along with the Education and Defense departments, to track college completion data for veterans to provide "a more accurate picture of what success looks like," a White House statement says.
Concerns have centered mostly on for-profit schools. A 2010 Senate analysis found troubling withdrawal rates at eight for-profit colleges that enroll the largest numbers of veterans. Dropout rates for one company were as high as 69%.
Non-profit colleges aren't off the hook. "Many schools will claim to be military-friendly, and almost any veteran will tell you that that is a completely meaningless term," says Gene van den Bosch, president of the Arizona Veterans' Education Foundation. A few years ago, the group's informal check of colleges in Arizona found as few as 3% of veterans graduating from some public universities and community colleges. A law is poised to go into effect that requires Arizona colleges to collect and report graduation rates if they want to be certified as a "veteran-supportive campus."
Elsewhere, efforts are underway to remove barriers. Some New Jersey colleges are condensing academic programs in teaching and engineering to make it easier for Post- 9/11 GI Bill recipients to get their degrees before their benefits run out — in most cases, after 36 months. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, announced a program this month that awards vets college credit for some military service, an effort to speed their progress.
Two non-profit groups, the Pat Tillman Foundation and Operation College Promise, plan to launch an initiative this summer that builds on a seven-campus pilot study. It suggests veterans are more likely to progress at a rate similar to those of non-veterans if they attended schools with robust support services tailored to the needs of veterans.
At this community college, that support comes not only from Glaude's office, but also from classmates who served. "We may not all have seen the same things when we served, but we have a common background," says former Navy Seabee Justin Fiorella, 28, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We know what other vets have been through and are going through now."