Million Records Project Leaves Questions Unanswered about Veterans’ Educational Success

By Sarah E. Minnis, PhD and Shane P. Hammond, EdD

The Million Records Project report released in May by Student Veterans of America (SVA), in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse, provided a much-anticipated review of veterans’ pursuit of higher education.  Using data not previously available, including some data from the National Student Clearinghouse, to examine the completion rates for roughly one million veterans attending college, this report offers a new look at where and how student veterans are succeeding in higher education.

What the report detailed, both in how the data was collected and the study results presented, provides a high-level overview of what is purported to be veterans’ progress in achieving education.  It also highlights the need for ongoing efforts to promote research on veterans in higher education along with support veterans using their education benefits to earn a certificate, diploma, or degree.

The report states that 51.7 percent of veterans are completing the higher education goal for which they are using their benefits and taking 4-6 years to do so. The statistic is based on a sample of veterans in higher education using the Montgomery GI Bill, the Post 9/11 GI Bill, or both in the years 2002 to 2010 and drew comparisons between veterans and populations identified as similar such as non-traditional students and students with disabilities.

Because of the sample selected for examination, other populations of veterans were excluded – reservists using the Reserve Education Assistance Program or active duty service members using tuition assistance – which may have impacted the rate of completion.  But that figure isn’t comparable to other graduation rates like those calculated by the Department of Education.

Not only does SVA’s approach mean that graduation rates cannot be compared to any one completion cohort constructed by the Department of Education, but the graduation results are likely overstated compared to the typical formula the Department uses (McCann, 2014) Additionally, failure to factor in the greater dollar value of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which makes it a more desirable benefit, and uncontrollable delays in veterans’ time to completion due to deployments in addition to the resident versus non-resident rate of tuition difference could lend to discrepancies in the data.  As well, making simple comparisons to other non-traditional students and those with non-military related disabilities leads the reader to an inaccurate picture of the veteran experience and potential to achieve in higher education.  In all, based on flaws in how the data were collected and what the numbers do not tell us, the reader is left with more questions than answers regarding how veterans are faring as they pursue higher education.

The report sets out the review of literature in two frameworks: one highlighting the reasons veterans would not be expected to persist to completion by making comparisons to these other student populations without making significant note of the ways in which veterans are different from them, and another that assumes educational completion based on previous research data and historical comparisons.

In setting up the argument in this way the author has overlooked previous research on the current veteran experience in higher education and has failed to recognize key factors that may lead to their success or lack thereof.  Veterans do experience higher education differently than their traditional-aged and non-traditional counterparts in school (Vacchi & Berger, 2014).  And while they may have disabilities, seen or unseen, from their military experiences, veterans are unlike most others with disabilities on campus (Madaus, Miller II & Vance, 2009).

Data has not been collected in any sort of systematic way by any entity, which would allow an easy comparison between sources to draw conclusions about who veterans are and whether they are completing education.  The term “veteran” is not defined by the entities collecting data, which the report cites, and there is no one source that is noted as being the best.  In the report, the author recognizes this and the “contradictory results” as a challenge to the current research.  Moreover, as the report points out, lots of veterans take unconventional paths through college—sometimes starting school later in life or leaving mid-year for one or more deployments before returning.

There can be little doubt that more recent veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the increasing numbers of National Guard and Reservists who serve combat tours, are taking winding roads to graduation. (McCann, 2014)

The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that helps institutions meet federal reporting requirements, serves the institutions above all other audiences. This means it will not publish data at the institutional level, meaning neither students nor policymakers can identify those schools for improvement, leaving more unanswered questions in the report (McCann, 2014).

In the end the Million Records Report offers statistics based partly on conjecture and wholly on data, which cannot be viewed as complete or accurate.  The author makes mention at multiple points that outliers are likely influencing the numbers and concedes that numerous other veteran-related factors, such as stopping out of school to deploy, are contributing issues as well.  Most significantly, the question we are left with is “why?”

We need to know why veterans are completing or not completing higher education and the factors influencing their persistence to completion or lack thereof.  We need to know what may be impacting their time to achieve their education, when they are making decisions about their benefit use, and how they are selecting their academic paths.  Mostly, however, we need to understand why veterans are attending higher education, why they are achieving, and why they are not doing so at a higher rate.  We need to stop celebrating as 51.7 percent completion rate is not worthy of celebration, and is likely an underestimate.

We should begin asking what we can do to raise veteran graduation rates on our individual campuses, so that we will truly have the best-educated and most employable veteran workforce ever.


Sarah E. Minnis, PhD is the CEO and Principal Consultant at Anthology Consulting LLC. She has over 20 years of career and organization development experience with 8 years working specifically with veterans and the organizations educating and employing them. As a recognized expert in veterans’ career development, Sarah has published and presented nationally and internationally on her experiences and research with veterans. Through her ongoing work in veterans’ career development she has developed a program of support and education to help college and employment communities understand the value of the veterans they serve.

Dr. Shane Hammond is a demonstrated scholar-practitioner in higher education with diverse experience in student affairs administration and leadership.  Currently serving on the graduate faculty in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Hammond has worked tirelessly to support the creation of model student veteran programs in the state of Massachusetts.  His on-going research of student veterans in higher education provide empirical insight into the identity of student veterans who have experienced combat.


Works Cited

Cate, C.A. (2014). Million Records Project: Research from Student Veterans of America. Student Veterans of America, Washington, DC.

Madaus, J.W.; Miller II, W.K. & Vance, M.L. (2009). Veterans with disabilities in postsecondary education. In J.W. Madaus (Ed.), Journal of postsecondary education and disability: Veterans with disabilities (10-17). Huntersville, NC: AHEAD.

McCann, C (April 8, 2014). Million Records Project Raises as Many Questions as Answers. Ed Central. Retrieved from

Vacchi, D. & Berger, J. (2014).  Student veterans in higher education.  In M. Paulsen (Ed), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. 29).  Netherlands: Springer

Veterans Studies: Expanding Notions of “Vet Friendly” to Include the Curriculum

By Penny Coleman

In March of 2014, Travis L. Martin published a thoughtful and provocative article through Military Experience and the Arts, titled “Veterans Studies as an Academic Discipline,” in which he called out academia for its failure to offer programs that “(introduce) non-veterans to military service, (allow) veterans to contextualize their experience, and bring both groups together in scholarly analysis of those issues relevant to veterans of different generations.”

Martin is absolutely correct. Programs dedicated to veterans’ studies currently exist in only three universities: Eastern Kentucky UniversityUniversity of Missouri St. Louis, and ours at SUNY / Empire State College. ,

Despite the eagerness of colleges and universities to accept the tuition and other benefits that student veterans bring to their campuses, and even despite the well-intentioned efforts of many schools to provide those students with supportive “veteran friendly” environments, veterans remain marginalized in the curriculum. As Martin so aptly points out, university catalogues include an emerging focus on populations that have been traditionally underrepresented, but veterans are not among them.

The Veterans Studies program that Martin championed at Eastern Kentucky University was, in 2012, the first of its kind in the nation at the undergraduate level– and it remains so. That same year, SUNY/Empire State College launched an Advanced Certificate in Veterans Services— also a first, but at the graduate level. It, too, remains unique. Though our program design and demographic audiences are different, our priorities reflect similar intentions.

Both programs recognize that veterans’ issues are national issues and so emphasize the importance of engaging both military and civilian students, and both have chosen an educational approach that privileges strong theoretical and conceptual content. The ESC certificate, offered entirely online, consists of four 15-week, 3-credit graduate courses, (Credits earned are directly transferable to several of our other graduate programs.) We packed into those courses what we believe our students most need to serve and advocate effectively in the veteran space.

As much as they need to know about current and available policies and benefits, students also need to understand that those policies and benefits are an expression of human politics, arrived at over centuries of debate, adjustment and change.

When existing policies and benefits are inadequate to the needs of those they are supposed to support, we encourage students to recognize the importance of community, to practice building bridges to local organizations that will support their future efforts.

When those policies and benefits have outlived their usefulness, students need to believe in their ability to research competently, think through complex issues, write professionally, argue with clarity, and know that they have at their disposal a toolbox full of strategies to advocate for change.

We encourage students to recognize that “military culture” is convenient, if often misleading, shorthand. Any individual service member will experience that culture uniquely (depending on a whole slew of variables, including service branch, rank, era of service, age, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference). True cultural competence reflects a deep understanding of how different we all are–and how different our life experiences have been.

Those training to serve the veteran community must be aware that mental illness and invisible injuries are stigmatized, not only in military culture, but in the civilian culture that surrounds it as well. A provider’s good will alone often isn’t enough. Without considered perspectives, examined beliefs, and cultivated sensitivities, s/he may actually do more harm than good.

In other words, students need education at least as much as they need training. The ESC Certificate program includes opportunities for students to practice identifying problems and solutions that go beyond simple application of policies and benefits.

As a graduate program, our students tend to be professionals with some previous experience in the field, and though the majority are veterans, we also enroll a lot of active duty military and their family members, social workers and counselors, VA employees (or aspirants), college and university educational service officers, public and private veteran service officers and case managers, state and county veteran service officers, and advocates of all stripes. They share their military and professional experiences, argue ethics and justice, research current initiatives and practice writing policy briefs and testimony for lawmakers. In the process, they get to know each other, learn to listen and speak across differences, and form networks that extend beyond the university.

EKU’s residential program has all the advantages of brick and mortar classrooms: face-to-face learning, campus support, extracurricular socializing and opportunities for local student initiatives. Those programs should be everywhere, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. However, for those students whose busy schedules are harder to accommodate, an online program provides flexibility, both in time and location, as well as the diversity of a national student body.

Our program is also unique in that it focuses, not on military issues in general, but entirely on veterans, the strengths they have acquired through their military service, the illnesses and injuries they carry home, the reentry challenges that they and their families face, and the systems of support available to help them succeed. In other words, it is about healing, both the soldiers and the system.

Finally, both programs hope to inspire other institutions to include Veterans Studies in their offerings, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. Our differences, then, as well as our similarities, offer choices for others to consider. We’re all in this together.

Penny port copyPenny Coleman is the coordinator of the Advanced Certificate Veterans Services at SUNY/Empire State College.  She is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home and the author of Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War  (Beacon Press, 2006).

Her articles and congressional testimonies can be found on her website.  She can be reached at 


By Michael Lund

On the way to the joyous occasion of our son’s wedding recently, my wife, an animal lover, got to chatting at the airport with a younger woman traveling with her small dog. “She’s been with me all over the world,” said the owner proudly. “She’s a great companion.” The dog rode in a soft cage, but was well-enough behaved to sit on her owner’s lap, have a biscuit, and drink water while they waited.

It turned out the traveler’s first flight on her way from a Mid-Atlantic state to Alaska had been canceled that morning after she’d arrived at the airport and been checked in for her flight. To reschedule, she explained, she had been made to go back though security with all her baggage. (This also gave her the chance to walk her dog in an approved area.) Re-booked on an afternoon plane and with the new boarding pass in hand, she endured the process of having herself and her effects screened a second time before being allowed to settle in and wait for the same plane on which we had seats.

Encouraged by my wife’s interest, she eventually revealed that she was the wife of an Army sergeant–seven years in the service, three tours in Afghanistan. He had been wounded (lost part of a hand), experienced several concussions, was perhaps developing a need for counseling (but was reluctant to seek it).

After his most recent time overseas, she, the spouse and the mother, began to feel unwell. She was tentatively diagnosed with MS, the symptoms of which–tiredness, tingling in the limbs, vision problems–are often augmented by stress. Over the last few weeks, she’d been to see a specialist near where her parents lived (who could help with the children traveling with her while she underwent tests at the hospital). Her physical condition confirmed and a treatment plan established, she was returning to care for her family. Some of their children were staying with the grandparents for a time.

Overhearing this conversation, I offered to get my wife a soft drink and asked the mother if she would like something also. She thanked me and began unpacking her purse to find the money. I waved her off, saying she and her family had done enough for me and mine.

When our flight was called, she got up, gathered her dog and her travel bag, and came over to exchange a hug with my wife–an hour and a half ago a complete stranger. Holding back some tears, we both wished her well. Her long journey would stretch into the next day at least; and when she arrived home the real hard work would begin.

That this military spouse was so receptive to the concern my wife showed for her underscored to me how lost the military can feel in a civilian environment. She had not volunteered her story, but my wife, a good listener, encouraged her to speak. To those not aware of her burdens, she was just one more traveler, deserving no exemptions from such policies as those that govern the care of pets and those traveling with pets.

If I’d had my wits about me (they were scattered by the matter-of-fact way she spoke about all she was going through), I would have made sure she was booked first-class for the rest of her journey. I will feel this regret for a long time. And I should.

A native of Rolla, Missouri, Michael Lund served in Vietnam as an US Army correspondent (1970-71). Professor Emeritus of English at Longwood University in Virginia, he is the author of a number of novels inspired by Route 66. He lives in Virginia and writes about veterans issues.

Politics As Usual: A Town Hall Meeting to Address the Allegations of Criminal Neglect by the Veterans Affairs Health Care System

By Tom Kauffman, May 13, 2014

Tom Kauffman and Mike Broomhead, a veterans advocate and Phoenix radio personality, 550 KFYI
Tom Kauffman and Mike Broomhead, a veterans advocate and Phoenix radio personality, 550 KFYI

Recent allegations that the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital was derelict in its duties, resulting in the deaths of 40 patients, have attracted the eyes of veteran service organizations, politicians, and the media. A recent town hall meeting, co-hosted by Phoenix radio personality Mike Broomhead, was meant to address these allegations and others emerging in the wake of the Phoenix scandal.

“Thank you for coming today, we are here to get answers and table solutions ,” said Broomhead, a steadfast veterans advocate.

At issue was the “amount of time veterans have to wait to get the care they deserve and earned,” he asserted before polling the crowed. By a show of hands, he asked attendees how long they had waited for care at the Phoenix facility for 15 days, then 30 days, then 60, 90, 6 months, and 1 year or longer.

At the end of the survey, more than a few hands remained in the air.

Senator John McCain then took the stage, inviting four women to speak. They told stories of husbands and fathers dying while waiting for care, of dying due to substandard treatment.

One couldn’t help but notice the flurry of flashes and hear the clicks of cameras as reporters raced to record the more emotional moments.

Widow Vicki Olsen
Widow Vicki Olsen

“For a year my husband tried to get an appointment. They just kept telling him, ‘Be patient, sir. You have to be patient,’” claimed Vicki Olson, one of the grieving widows on the stage.

“My dead veteran husband cannot be much more patient than he is today.  But me, I’m pissed.”

Senator McCain then made some points regarding the allegations of a secret “Death List.” He addressed reports of officials “cooking the books” in order to make it appear as if patients were receiving timely care.

He stopped short of calling for the resignation of Eric Shinseki, departing from the stance taken by several veteran service organizations as of late.

Instead, McCain took an easier stance, arguing that, if the allegations prove to be true, it will not be a matter of officials resigning, but a matter of officials spending time in jail. He then backed off on his rhetoric a bit, stating that investigations by the Inspector General can take months or even years.

Unfortunately, none of his words offered a solution to the ongoing problems of lengthy wait times and substandard care. Many veterans cannot afford to wait for things to change.

The only hint at a solution came when McCain proposed the idea of veterans choosing their own doctors: “Maybe we could have a card that would allow for reimbursement of outside care.”

However, he backtracked again, pointing out that the type of legislation requited to enact such a change would need to go through Congress. The blame was put on the system. Solutions would have to come from elsewhere.

McCain then opened the floor to the veterans in attendance. Emotional stories were followed by one pointed question in particular. “What are you going to do for veterans?” one veteran asked.

“I’ve helped [with] thousands of cases. You can see my record and ask my special team,” McCain replied.

John McCain at the veterans town hall meeting.
John McCain at the veterans town hall meeting.

“We’ve heard all this before,” the veteran added. “Sir, are you and your colleagues going to do the right thing for veterans?”

I was left with the impression that Senator McCain was doing little more than helping his constituents on an individual level—that he was doing his job, nothing more. After an hour, the floor was closed to veterans’ questions and comments. Nothing had been accomplished. No new ideas were presented. No leader emerged. 

McCain, who is often, due to his military service and time spent as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, touted as the federal government’s one representative aware of the sacrifices made by veterans, failed to prove himself as a leader.

After waiting for the national media to get their talking points and interviews, I calmly asked  Senator McCain about his plans to reduce the number of veteran suicides. Citing current statistics, I made a point of letting him know, that during the course of the town hall meeting, it was likely that three veterans had taken their own lives.

“I’m not answering anymore questions.”

I am a veteran living with PTSD. And though there were many others in attendance who could’ve made the same claim, I was one of the few with a legitimate press pass, one of the few who’d been pre-approved for a chance to talk one on one with the senator. I felt insulted, shrugged off, ignored.

The senator instructed me to see his team of caseworkers to address any personal issues I’ve experienced with the VA.  Perhaps, in the company I found myself in at that moment, it was unrealistic for anyone to assume that a veteran could be looking for a change that would go beyond self-interest. His refusal to answer my question seemed at odds with my experience of camaraderie and looking out for those brothers and sisters who’ve worn the uniform.  I was looking for answers, not more lip service.

I was left with a sickening feeling. Because a politicians’ verbal maneuverings upstaged the true, heartfelt stories and cries for help of our veterans, it wasn’t hard to think that the event had been co-opted for political gain.

I spoke with one of the organizers after the event off the record. He, too left with the same sick feeling. Call it “posturing,” dilly-dallying,” or “lying” outright if you want. In the end, the town hall was little more than an exercise in rhetoric.

I had hope, at least, that the event would bring our issues to the attention of the national media.

Still, as of this morning, I hear nothing but crickets.