A high school senior at the time of the September 11 attacks, Paul Szoldra joined the Marine Corps shortly thereafter and, for eight years, served in countries around the world, including a deployment in Afghanistan. Toward the end of his service, he faced an unexpected challenge: finding a college to attend afterward.
"When I was getting out, I was in Okinawa, Japan," Szoldra explains. "I couldn't really call [colleges], and I obviously could not visit them."
[Find out how to take virtual college tours.]
Despite the abundance of information on the Internet, Szoldra found more marketing sites (GIBill.com, for instance, is an unaffiliated site that pops up in search results near GIBill.va.gov, the government's website for college-bound veterans) than actual guidance. Unsure of what factors to consider, Szoldra looked to expensive schools with small student populations—two marks of quality, he assumed.
Though he's now happily enrolled at the University of Tampa, he's advising other college-bound service members to ditch his parameters in favor of attributes that will directly affect veterans, such as credits for military service, a community of veterans, and advisers certified by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
[Get tips from Szoldra on how to succeed as a veteran in college.]
To reach more college-bound service members, Szoldra created CollegeVeteran.com, an advising website, and started a Change.org petition for a ranking of colleges that best provide for veterans. Currently, misleading marketing targeted at veterans pervades the Internet, he says, and may persuade those on the GI Bill to choose schools, including some for-profit institutions, that may not be right for them.
It's a cause President Obama has taken a stand on as well. According to a press release from the White House in late April, deceptive marketing includes recruiting "veterans with serious brain injuries and emotional vulnerabilities without providing academic support and counseling; encourag[ing] service members, veterans, and their families to take out costly institutional loans rather than encouraging them to apply for Federal student aid first; ... and not disclos[ing] meaningful information that allows potential students to determine whether the institution has a good record of graduating service members, veterans, and their families and positioning them for success in the workforce."
In an executive order, Obama announced a plan to target those types of online recruiting and to more effectively provide veterans with good information, such as true college costs and financial aid options, and with a centralized complaint center if issues arise. Among other mandates, Obama's order "will require that colleges participating in the military and veterans education benefit programs do more to meet the needs of military and veteran students by providing clear educational plans for students [and] academic and financial aid counseling services with staff that are familiar with the VA and D[epartment] o[f] D[efense] programs."
A VA-certified representative working with the college students is a key factor in veterans' success, Szoldra says. His adviser at the University of Tampa ensures that veterans get certified and that students receive GI Bill payments on time.
Drexel University is one institution that offers even more in-depth advising, employing Vietnam veteran Gene Clark as a veterans benefits counselor. Clark advises prospective and current students through common college obstacles including the process and potential pitfalls of applying for and receiving GI Bill payments, says Kenneth Hartman, president of Drexel University Online.
"It's important to have somebody like a Gene Clark on your campus, who has walked in [veterans'] shoes and who has seen the potential potholes along the way and helps them to steer clear of them—or certainly to know where they are so they don't step in them," Hartman says, stressing that "it all starts with the institution having the will and the way to create a learning environment that accommodates veterans."