Friday, August 26, 2011

An immediate impact

Amy Bailey is an  assistant professor
 of sociology at Utah State.
I joined the USU faculty last fall.  During that first semester, two of the students in my undergraduate class were combat veterans.  In spring semester, another student approached me to let me know that his National Guard unit had been called up, and he would be deployed to Iraq over the summer.  He would miss three weeks during the semester for training, and wanted to work with me to make sure he didn’t fall behind.

Earlier this summer, a Salt Lake Tribune article outlined the difficulties facing students who also happen to be combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.  That these students face unique challenges should come as no surprise.  A recent RAND study finds that of the more than 1.6 million Americans who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, 30% returned with traumatic brain injury, mental health issues (including post-traumatic stress disorder), or both. 

These students also bring unique strengths and experiences with them to the classroom, which may help them excel at balancing the stresses of college life.  This fall, with the support of a grant from the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, I begin a project that will assess how well student veterans in Utah fare.

This question matters not just because we owe our veterans the opportunity for success once they leave the armed forces.  Since the launch of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in the fall of 2009 (officially called the Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007), the number of veterans enrolling at institutions of higher education in our state has skyrocketed.  This new source of funding, introduced by Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia), retroactively provides universal educational benefits for all veterans, including Reservists and members of the National Guard, who spent at least 18 months on active military duty since September 11, 2001.  (Earlier versions of the GI Bill were essentially employer matching programs.  Enlistees had to sign up for the benefit when they joined the armed forces and consistently make monthly payments during their first year of service, so only a fraction of veterans qualified).

The number of veterans responding to this opportunity suggests that we may be able to do something to tangibly improve the life chances of the men and women in our armed forces.  However, it also threatens to overwhelm the ability of colleges and universities to effectively serve them.  At USU, for example, the number of new veterans more than doubled between the fall semester before and the fall semester after this new source of funding became available.

My project will collaborate with the veterans’ offices at several institutions of higher education across Utah, to help them sift through and analyze data on the students they serve to determine how veterans fare academically compared to other students.  I plan to examine grades, credit hours, major course of study, the likelihood of leaving school without a degree, and the average time to degree completion.  The preliminary work was completed with a graduate research assistant and one of the student veterans from my fall semester class.  This research will have an immediate impact, since it will provide Utah’s institutions of higher learning with information on the ways in which educational experiences of student veterans and nonveterans differ, equipping them to better serve their veteran student populations. 

Given the limited information that exists on this rapidly expanding group of students, this research may, in fact, provide the first statistical snapshot of the student veterans in our state.  As a sociologist, I am keenly interested in making sure that our shared resources – both the economic resources being used to fund these students’ educations, as well as the human resources that student veterans promise to provide to Utah – benefit us all.

Amy Bailey is an assistant professor of sociology at Utah State. Her research focuses on race and social inequality. Bailey earned her doctorate from the University of Washington in 2008 and spent two years as an NIH-funded postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University before joining the faculty at USU.

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