Veteran Retention Program Cuts Dropout Rate by More Than 50 Percent at National University
Student says peer mentoring program was "essential" to restoring her academic status
Few homecomings are as cherished as the safe return of our troops from overseas deployments.
In communities throughout the United States, members of the armed forces have been enthusiastically welcomed back from forward bases and combat zones with an abundance of pride and appreciation for their service and sacrifice. In most cases however, returning home is just the beginning of the lengthy process of reintegrating from military to civilian life.
A successful transition often includes additional months or years of education to prepare for a career or a profession, and this is where different kinds of casualties occur.
Since The Post-9/11 GI Bill was enacted in 2008, hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans have enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. Last year alone, close to 924,000 service members received federal education benefits; but according to a March 2012 study by the Colorado Workforce Development Council, an estimated 88 percent of veteran students drop out of school during their first year and only three percent end up graduating.
Currently precise numbers are unavailable, but there is no denying that far too many veterans are falling short of their academic goals and losing out on opportunities for increased income and advancement. If even a simple majority fails to reach their full potential and apply their leadership and experience toward positive, productive engagement in the workforce, that is an unacceptable loss.
To address this issue, National University has launched a remarkably effective initiative to increase retention among undergraduate veterans at risk of premature attrition, and its efforts are starting to pay major dividends. Two years ago, the restoration rate for veteran students on academic probation at National University was between five and 17 percent; but a pilot program launched last year has resulted in a 40 percent restoration rate.
This Veteran Academic Intervention program, administered by the National University Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success (CEVSS), pairs at-risk students with trained veteran peer mentors and provides them with a customized retention plan that includes ongoing follow-up and tracking. Statistical data, along with accounts from the students benefitting from this program, indicate an affective and reproducible approach.
Jennifer Nichols is a disabled veteran pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public health from National University. As with most veteran students, the first few classes proved to be the most difficult and soon she found herself struggling. With help from the intervention program, Ms. Nichols is now more than halfway toward completing in her program. She was on academic probation and on the verge of being disqualified when the Center stepped in to assist her.
With personal guidance and encouragement from her peer mentor, Ms. Nichols was able to return to good standing. She says the Center’s resources and support were instrumental in getting her over the hump and staying on course.
“’Peer mentor’ is the perfect name for the people who helped me,” she adds. “It has been invaluable to relate to someone who shares the same experiences and understands the veteran’s perspective. I don’t feel like I’m alone with them there. It seems like the mentors really care and they’re there because they love their jobs and believe in what they’re doing.”
Numerous challenges and obstacles face veterans as they adapt to life outside of the military, including the complexity of veteran educational benefits; relocation to a new community; adjustment to the rigors of student life; and other issues such as injuries and post-traumatic stress. There are so many things on a veteran student’s plate, that according to Ms. Nichols, the help offered by the Academic Intervention Program was “essential” to her continued enrollment. If it didn’t exist and she hadn’t taken the initiative to seek it out, she believes that she and most students like her would drop out.
“When I got a letter stating that I was on academic probation, the services offered by the Center definitely gave me hope,” says Ms. Nichols. “I decided to go in and see them, and my peer mentor helped to get me back on track. He checked up on me, assisted with my paperwork and had me believing in myself again. It was like I had a wing man, someone guarding my flank. Sometimes that is all that’s required to press on and complete your mission. It built up my confidence and provided reassurance when I needed it the most.”
Life is hard enough for a disabled veteran with health issues and chronic pain. For a single mother like Jennifer, it frequently takes all she can muster just to meet the needs of her two young sons. “My children always come first,” she insists. But with the advice and support of peers, she learned to better manage and balance parental and academic priorities. The Center staff also introduced her to a female veteran students’ group, which further bolstered and strengthened her resolve.
“There are currently close to 350 veteran students in our intervention program,” says Joe Zavala, Vice President of Student Services for National University. “This includes at-risk students, as well as those who are on academic probation. We decided to take a proactive approach and not necessarily wait until someone’s GPA falls below the 2.0 threshold, and it appears the strategy is working.”
At the midpoint of her degree program, Ms. Nichols has settled in and found her rhythm. She says she has successfully adapted to the pattern of being “a 26-day-per-month student,” and is back in good academic standing with a little more than a year to go before graduating. She now serves as a peer mentor to other veteran students. Upon graduation, her goal is to ultimately establish a non-profit organization for fellow disabled veterans, and reach out to help others like her while simultaneously setting an example for her two sons.
Ms. Nichols’ dream, once uncertain and in jeopardy, is once again clearly within reach. With community support, the Center aims to expand its intervention program in order to reach more veteran students.
To read more testimonials from veteran students regarding National University’s peer mentor program, click here.
About the Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success
The Center is the result of a $621,299, three-year grant that was awarded to National University by the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The Center is located at National University’s Spectrum Business Campus at 9388 Lightwave Avenue in San Diego, California 92123.
To support CEVSS as a donor, a volunteer, or to learn more about veteran peer mentoring and academic retention, contact CEVSS here.