Rutgers ranks No. 4 on ‘Best for Vets’ annual list
Matt Gibbons was in the Marine Corps for four years before he began his studies at Rutgers. He credits the Rutgers Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services for the transition.
“If the Office of Veteran and Military Programs [and Services] was not here, I would not have considered Rutgers,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons said the office staff helped personally facilitate his transition from the military into the University.
“It doesn’t seem like a massive school with a huge bureaucracy,” said Gibbons, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore. “They know how to take care of you.”
Rutgers was ranked number four on the Military Times’ “Best for Vets: Colleges 2014,” an annual list of the top four-year universities and colleges for military veterans.
The rankings were based on surveys of representatives from 600 schools in the country, according to militarytimes.com.
Schools were evaluated on five criteria: university culture, student support, academic quality, academic policies and financial aid. University culture and student support had the highest values in the rankings. For the first time, the list also factored in Education Department statistics, which tracks student success and academic quality.
University programs aimed specifically at helping veteran students are relatively new, said Stephen Abel, director of the Rutgers Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services.
Abel said it took universities and colleges a few years to fully understand the sacrifice and the service of the military, especially in light of the post-9/11 GI Bill.
“The catalyst for starting our program was an Army sniper and a Navy SEAL who went to a University senate meeting in 2008,” said Abel, a retired U.S. Army colonel.
They advised the president that veterans were selecting Rutgers at a lower rate because of its overwhelming size, Abel said.
According to the Military Times’ data, of the 58,788 students enrolled at Rutgers 2012, 2,154 of them were military veterans.
Abel said there was concern that Rutgers did not fully understand the extra issues that veterans after military service often face, and the University was not providing the resources that these veterans needed.
In response to these concerns, Rutgers enacted a committee for veteran services that included senior members, service providers and students from every campus at the University.
A few short months later in 2010, the Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services formed as an outgrowth of this committee.
Abel became the director on July 1 of that year and now works alongside Assistant Director Robert Bright and three other full-time employees.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs designated Rutgers as a VetSuccess On Campus University and assigned a fulltime VA employee to work out of the Rutgers Veterans House.
“This came as a result of the broad range of services we offer along with the quality of the services we offer,” Abel said.
Gibbons said the Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services is a place where he can bond with people who have similar experiences and worldviews.
“Any challenges I have met over the past year and a half here, I have been able to meet,” Gibbons said. “And I haven’t had to do it on my own.”
Gibbons has a work-study position in the office, where he is paid to answer phone calls and do other secretarial duties while he studies.
As the program has developed, so has Rutgers’ reputation as a “go-to” example for other universities and colleges seeking to provide better services for their veterans, Abel said.
Abel and Bright present regularly at nationwide conferences and even contributed to a book written by Rutgers professor Florence Hamrick, “Called to Serve,” a handbook on student veterans and higher education.
A military and veteran services peer group is to be formed within the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a network of the Big Ten Schools that will meet for the second time face-to-face this Monday.
The goal of this peer group is to ensure that all 14 Big Ten schools are taking care of their veterans in the best ways they can, Abel said.
“It’s an opportunity for us to tell folks what we do, hear what others do, and formulate the best practices for our veterans,” Abel said.
Abel said Rutgers was one of the first universities to make a significant commitment to providing services to veterans.
“When we first opened our office, Rutgers was not ranked on any list,” Abel said. “We worked very hard for that first year.”
In response to Rutgers dropping down a spot on the list, Abel said it is difficult competing with every school in the country.
Followed by the University of Nebraska Omaha and Concord University, D’Youville College topped the list, a private Catholic School in the Midwest that Abel said, “popped out of nowhere.”
As a smaller school, D’Youville is able to compensate the difference for what veteran students do not receive in GI bill benefits by providing scholarships, Abel said.
“It’s harder for [large] schools like us to do that,” Abel explained.
Abel said there are some things that Rutgers can do more effectively to move up the list, and the University is already making these efforts
On the Military Times list, one of Rutgers’s noted weaknesses was not having costs below the tuition assistance cap.
Abel recommends the University respond by considering discounting tuition for veteran students and establishing veteran-specific scholarships to raise its spot on the list.
Rutgers does currently have emergency grant and scholarship funds to prevent veterans whom run into academic emergencies from dropping out of school, Abel said.
“It’s more than just saying you provide all these services,” Abel said. “You don’t want to go to a school that is top rated, but where none of the veterans graduate.”
Since VA educational benefits are only good for 36 months, Abel said it is also important that veterans do not waste time, only taking classes they need and having access to these courses.
For this reason, Rutgers will enact priority class registration for veteran students.
Pam Hines, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences major, said the Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services helped her get into classes she did not have the right perquisites for by linking her with the heads of the right departments.
Hines, who served in the military for three years beginning in 1983, said the Veterans House on Lafayette Street is a home where she can go to socialize and study.
“They are really committed to helping us [veterans] with the different issues we have,” Hines said. “It’s one big family.”