Accessing pathways and promising practices of California veterans: using the GI Bill in higher education

In 1947, veterans constituted 49% of college admissions (Department of Veterans Affairs [VA], 2013). As a result of the GI Bill in 1956, the U.S. labor market benefited from an additional 450,000 engineers, 238,000 school teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 medical doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than 1 million other college-trained professionals (Haydock, 1996). However, today too many military veterans from the enlisted ranks fall short of achieving their educational goals. While more veterans enroll in college, fewer veterans are graduating (VA, 2009). In recent years, college campuses across the nation have witnessed major enrollments of returning military veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. However, many veterans suffer from higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and war-incurred disabilities. There exists little qualitative research that explores the academic and social experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan student veterans, especially factors contributing to their success. The transition from military life to civilian life can be one of the most challenging encounters of any individual. This study investigated the academic and social experiences of student veterans following the transition from military service through enrollment and graduation in California colleges utilizing the GI Bill benefit. Using a semi-structured interview protocol to identify perceptions and explore the experiences and insights of student veterans, the study demonstrated how this demographic was able to achieve academic success despite various barriers, such as the pressure of the first year of college, despair, physical disabilities, injuries, PTSD, perceptions of other students, and interaction with faculty. The study used a qualitative phenomenological design to determine the essence of the experiences of successful and unsuccessful veterans in higher education. This study’s primary objective was to inform student affairs administrators, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other higher education constituent groups about the experiences of student veterans and promising best practices to address the unique needs of this student group. The purpose of this study was to create a base of knowledge concerning the overall academic and social experiences of student veterans who enlisted in the military pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher. Furthermore, this study explored new and existing sources of support for student veterans. Implications were provided through the lenses of transformational leadership, policy, and data-based decision-making practices. The study provides recommendations related to the different transitional phases military service members experience upon completion of their military service.