7 Key Challenges in Higher Education for Military-Connected Students

The phrase “military-connected students” is meant to better identify those using Post 9/11 GI benefits to attend post-secondary education. Researchers Dani Molina and Andrew Morse use this term to identify not only veterans and active duty service members but also survivors (dependents whose military family members were killed in action) and dependents.

In its 2015 report, the American Council on Education (ACE) published findings by Molina and Morse that identify challenges of military-connected undergraduates often face, which included these seven key factors:

  • Delayed college enrollment
  • No high school diploma
  • Part-time college enrollment
  • Financially independent
  • Have dependents
  • Single parent status
  • Full-time work while in college

If you look at these key factors, you’ll notice something interesting. These factors are similar to many of the challenges that non-traditional students have who are not military-connected. What the ACE report confirms is that military-connected undergrads represent an intersection of the student population, spanning many demographics that share similar challenges and life characteristics.

The ACE report from 2015 also showed that, “a large share of military-connected undergraduates face life circumstances that research shows are associated with postsecondary non-completion.” These findings make the need to address these seven factors even more pressing to ensure success for these students.

The good news is that additional research from Student Veterans of America (SVA) through their Million Records Project has reported that 68% of veterans were in fact completing their degrees despite facing these key challenges. On the flip side, SVA also reported about 30% to 40% of veterans were not completing their degrees.

At Swords to Plowshares, we have recognized that outside of the research from ACE and SVA that the amount of data available to look at the needs of military-connected students is limited. This shortfall means it is difficult for service providers and the VA to isolate and address their needs. The absence of a proper narrative to inform the public on the trajectory of these students and the unique challenges they face is also needed to form a more complete picture.

Moving forward, how do we address these factors to mitigate these challenges when we know so little about these students? More studies must be conducted so educators, researchers, policymakers, and institutions can find the answers to these questions.

At Swords to Plowshares, we are conducting focus groups at four local colleges and universities with the highest numbers of veterans to better map out the landscape for military-connected students in the Bay Area. These include UC Berkeley, City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and University of San Francisco. The purpose of our study is to gather more information on Bay Area colleges to help these institutions to better understand the direct challenges and needs of their military-connected undergraduates. This final data and corresponding report will then be released to each institution so they can direct their initiatives to the challenges specific to their institution.

It is becoming imperative that colleges and universities across the nation implement initiatives that help further support military-connected undergrads on their path to graduation. There are many actions that can be taken. Schools can partner with organizations like Swords to Plowshares and other community based organizations to improve outcomes, specifically targeting degree completion and future employment opportunities.

Our task now is to learn as much as we can about this population, so that they can succeed in college and have a successful transition into civilian life.


Victor Inzunza, Policy Associate

Victor Inzunza is a Policy Associate with Swords to Plowshares. He presents Combat to Community® cultural competency curriculum and provides outreach and technical assistance to other community-based veteran services agencies. Victor graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English from University of the Pacific and earned his MFA in Writing from University of San Francisco.

Victor spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is an OIF veteran who served two tours of duty in 2003 and 2004. He has been active in the veteran community since 2008, focusing on access to education for California veterans. He served as president for the Student Veterans of America chapter at University of the Pacific.

Feature image: Veterans Education Transition & Support (VETS) at SF State