Finding Value for Student Veterans

College costs and ROI may be under fire, but here are three bonafide benefits for student veterans that go beyond the traditional degree.

By: Michael Brown

I am sure you have seen the ongoing debate about the value of a college degree and does the return match the investment. Typically, the debate centers on how expensive it is to earn a college degree, compared to 20 years ago, as well as the crushing debt incurred by degree seekers. 

In this article, I do not plan to disagree with these assertions. The cost to attend college is high, and debt is a big problem. Instead, I want to discuss how the value of college is more than just a piece of paper. There are several caveats, of course. College is not for everyone, and having a plan in conjunction with attending the right college would be ideal. However, no two individuals have the same opportunities or situations. 

Having said that, organizations such as Service to School and the Warrior-Scholar Project are assisting veterans with entry into more selective institutions, and the data shows that assistance improves these outcomes. Adding these organizations to existing Veterans Affairs education benefits, as well as the Yellow Ribbon program, means that debt can be reduced or eliminated for veteran students.

The education benefits were a primary reason I joined the Army. I knew that at the end of my term, I would be able to pay for college—something that was not a reality for me before joining. According to various studies and plenty of research, benefits, such as the GI Bill, are a big driver for enlisting in the military. 

These benefits are used by many people every year. Since the Forever GI Bill was approved in 2019, many veterans, service members and their dependents have used the benefit to earn degrees, certificates or credentials as they pursue careers post-military. 

To get the most benefit from post-secondary education, some classes should be taken in person. After more than 10 years working in higher ed, I have found that students who most of their classes on campus tend to have better college experiences with better outcomes. This is not always the case, but being in the classroom on a campus can be meaningful and result in life-long relationships. 

Here are the three things that I believe make college a great choice for veterans as they separate from the military.


College provides career exploration that otherwise may not be available if you jump directly into the workforce. I know that the Skillbridge program is available, but college affords you several years to learn what you may like, or, potentially and equally important, what you do not like.

A current student veteran here at Villanova, is now studying sociology. Three years ago, as an NCO in the US Army, he didn’t even know what sociology was. Not everyone getting out of the military wants to be in finance, consulting or project management, and college can broaden veterans’ depth of understanding about the choices available.


College can broaden a student’s potential network. At Villanova, we hold regular functions during which alumni and students can meet. As the saying goes, your network is your net worth. The people a student knows can have a profound impact on the opportunities in their career or professional development. 

For some student veterans, networking is a daunting task. Regardless of their chosen career field, a broad network can lead to new opportunities, mentorship and a sense of belonging in the new community after the military.

Knowledge Expansion

This last argument for the value of college may seem a bit abstract, but the value of college is for not only the veterans but also the traditional students within that classroom. For instance, in a political science class, many students will go on to get advanced degrees and potentially become decision-makers within the nation. If the class includes veterans who share their perspectives, all students may gain a broader understanding of the implications of foreign policy choices. 

This unique perspective reminds me of a quote from Mark Street’s 2014 article, in which two students described something in class differently. It may be dated, but I encourage you to read this article to understand this concept better. 

The paper ceiling, as some have termed it, needs to change. But I will continue to believe that college is not just a paper-producing factory. It is a place to learn, grow, explore, cultivate relationships and be challenged. I have seen student veterans go from being unsure of themselves to becoming confident in their abilities after completing classes. 

I asked one of my current student veterans what he saw as the value of attending college. He simply said, “Being in the classroom and this community allows me the time and space to invest in myself and my career goals.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

College for the sake of it is not the goal here. I encourage higher ed leaders to help students develop a plan, to encourage veterans to engage in serious conversations before choosing a campus and to direct these veterans toward resources, such as Service to School and the Warrior-Scholar Project, which will set them up for success.

Michael Brown

Michael Brown


Michael Brown joined the US Army after high school, serving 4 years on active duty and deploying to Bosnia with the 1st Armored Division. Following his service, he attended Northern Michigan University, majoring in political science and applied ethics. In 2007, he was hired by Congressman-elect Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran in congress, to be military and veterans affairs director. Michael became the first director of the office of veterans and military service members at Villanova University in October 2018.

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