(Originally posted by Andrew McCarty on the Northeastern University Aspire Blog)
As the veteran services specialist at Northeastern University, I’m honored to serve our veterans and servicemembers on campus by helping them navigate the services we offer. I know first-hand the challenges of separating from the military, looking for employment, finding a place to live, and starting school after years away from the classroom. I’m proud to say that when I was finally ready to start again, I attended Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies to earn my bachelor’s degree.
Attending a military friendly university, one that offers a robust support and administrative network for veterans, will make all the difference as you navigate your well-earned veteran education benefits. The process should be smooth; if it feels like repeated trips to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, something is wrong.
A number of organizations will label a school “military friendly,” and all have a minimum set of qualifications a school must meet in order to earn that designation. That’s a good place to start if you’re wondering whether the college you’re pursuing is military friendly. Some schools, however, go above and beyond that basic set of qualifications, so when you see a “military friendly” designation, I would encourage students to look a little deeper.
Here are 10 ways to tell if a university is as military friendly as they say:
1. No Promise of a “Free” Education
Military friendly does not mean your education is free. It’s an unfortunate reality, but you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you think that’s what makes an institution veteran friendly. Many schools will provide discounts, special scholarships or participate in the Yellow Ribbon program. Coupled with your VA education benefits, these programs might cover your tuition in full. However, if you’re interested in a school that doesn’t offer tuition benefits but has a host of other opportunities for veterans, consider the overall experience over the ticket price.
2. Military/Veteran Experience
It can be a whole staff or just one person who handles veterans, but someone on campus should be knowledgeable about transitioning from the military into academia. If you reach out to a school and identify yourself as a veteran only to get a blank stare, that’s a red flag. You deserve to speak with someone who understands where you are coming from.
3. Educational Benefits Knowledge
You also want to encounter a person or a team who has knowledge of your military and veteran benefits. A majority of veterans are told they have benefits, but initiating those benefits or understanding what amount you’ll receive – those are areas that the military does not explain well. A college or university representative should be able to assist you in setting up your benefits, help you with the documents you need to provide, and explain how the process works. They can’t do everything for you, but they can certainly teach you.
4. Dedicated staff
A dedicated staff can mean many things: a Veteran’s Administrative (VA) benefits administrator, admissions and counseling staff. This is much more than having just a certifying official on campus. Often times, certifying VA benefits is just one of the many responsibilities that person may have. Having a dedicated staff member or team at the institution means that you’ll always have a point of contact you can rely on.
5. Centralized services
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from veteran students – myself included – is having to run around to different people or locations on campus to handle registrar, financial aid and student account issues. Veterans deserve a one-stop shop for veterans where all VA-related services are consolidated into a single department. It doesn’t mean that a school can’t do very well with separate offices, but consolidating is better and easier for our students. Northeastern made this move in 2012, and it has significantly improved the experience for our veterans.
6. Student Organization
Look to see if there’s a Student Veterans Organization (SVO) on campus. If there is, great! Now ask if it a chapter of the Student Veterans of America (SVA). SVA chapters have to meet certain qualifications. Attending a school with an active SVA chapter means there’s an existing group of individuals who have had similar experiences, and because they are already enrolled, they have navigated the system and can assist you. If you’re not able to reach anyone at the school, or you have questions you don’t want to ask of a staff member, this is a great source of information.
One word of caution: Find out who actually runs the SVO. Make sure there are students in leadership roles, and that it’s not a shadow organization set up by university administration.
7. A Dedicated Space
Not every institution will have one, but more and more are creating a dedicated space for veterans, whether it’s an office, a larger space or a whole center. This is a good place to retreat for quiet study time or camaraderie throughout the day.
8. Military Transfer Credit
Many institutions offer military transfer credit, both for your military experience and training, and any college classes you may have taken before or during your service. Check to see if the university belongs to the Servicemember Opportunity Colleges Consortium (SOC.) If they are a SOC consortium member, they have agreed to the fair policy on military transfer credit.
9. Financial Aid/Yellow Ribbon Program
There are many financial aid programs for veterans, including in-state tuition for state schools. For private institutions, the Yellow Ribbon Program is a fantastic benefit. The program helps fund the gap between G.I. Bill benefits and actual tuition costs.
Northeastern offers a total of 259 spots, and we participate at the highest level, funding up to 50% of the gap left over after the G.I. Bill is applied. Having made the most generous Yellow Ribbon commitment out of any school in Massachusetts, we’ll provide up to $25,000 a year for undergraduates; $20,000 a year for graduate school; and $10,000 a year for law school. Since not every student will qualify and different universities fund at different levels, you’ll also want to see what other scholarships or grants are available.
10. Veteran-specific orientation
This can be accomplished in any number of ways, including a special breakout session at new student orientation, or something as simple as a welcome dinner for student veterans at the beginning of each semester. An opportunity to meet one another and start building your on-campus community is extremely valuable.