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Veterans' College Drop-Out Rate Soars

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WASHINGTON -- In the decade after World War II, 2 million veterans went to college on the new GI Bill, and almost all of them graduated and went on to power the post-war economic boom.

This fall, tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans are enrolled in colleges and universities across the country, courtesy of the GI Bill. But almost all of them -- 88 percent -- will drop out by next summer, feeling isolated and frustrated in an alien culture.

Before they disappear from campus, they will contribute to another dismaying statistic: student veterans are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their civilian counterparts.

"The trend is to hard to ignore," said John Schupp, a chemist and professor at Tiffin University in Ohio who is spearheading an effort to ease veterans' transition into academic life.

"For the country to succeed," Schupp said, "this generation of veterans has to succeed."

The struggle of veterans to stay in school, and the failure of many colleges and universities to help them, is part of a broader challenge as some 2.3 million veterans flood home from Iraq and Afghanistan to confront a difficult adjustment to civilian life.

Jobs and affordable housing are harder to secure. Many veterans find civilian life pointless and flat after the excitement and stress of war. Families are exhausted from the strain of long separations.

And many vets are trying to manage insomnia, anger, anxiety and depression, common symptoms of combat trauma. A study of veterans in college found one-third had experienced severe anxiety, one-fourth suffered from severe depression and 45 percent experienced "significant" symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Forty-six percent of veterans on campus had considered suicide, compared to six percent among civilian college students. Ten percent of student veterans thought of suicide "often" or "very often," and 7.7 percent had attempted suicide, according to study by M. David Rudd, clinical psychologist and scientific director of the National Center for Veterans Studies, University of Utah.

Life inside the military is one of tightly shared values and commitments. You show up on time, dressed in the right uniform with the right gear; you are responsible for your buddies and they watch your back. Decisions matter. You respect your superiors and question them only to a point.

In a Marine platoon in Afghanistan, for instance, everyone pays attention during the pre-mission brief; their lives will depend on knowing the plan. But back home in English class, Marine vets may watch in dismay as civilian students may come in late wearing a torn T-shirt and flip-flops, text during a lecture or skip class altogether.

Small wonder that on campus, many veterans feel a sense of vertigo from the sudden loss of community.

"We're used to high intensity life, constant vigilance on a very routinized lifestyle," said Cody Nicholls, an Iraq combat veteran and grad student who directs the VETS program at the University of Arizona. "Coming into higher ed is a stark contrast, especially coming out of combat. Here, it's kind of 'Here are the keys, good luck, you're on your own.'"

That's a key factor that defines the difference between the WWII veterans who attended college and today's veterans. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, with 13 million veterans pouring out of the ranks and the new GI bill providing free tuition to any four-year college, practically everybody in school was a veteran. Now, with less than 1 percent of military-age Americans volunteering for military service, veterans on campus are scarce and can feel alone.

As a Marine sergeant, Dan Standage relied on his team all the time. But arriving on campus at the University of Arizona, he found "you don't have a team any longer. That's what really messed me up; I was sitting all the time in the library totally isolated," he said. "Having other veterans around is just critical. When you have a bad day you can talk shop with another vet who totally understands you, you can laugh if off rather than take it out on someone."

Guessing that isolation was part of the problem, Schupp ran an experiment in the spring of 2008 that took veterans scattered throughout a university's chemistry classes and put them in one class. His hunch was that they'd do better working with other veterans than with civilian students. In their first set of exams, veterans scored far higher than the civilians.

"I was like, 'Holy crap! This is working!'" Schupp crowed. He said one veteran explained to him: "'We're not stupid, we just couldn't concentrate.'" Segregated with other veterans, though, Schupp said they could relax and really concentrate.

Similar work was underway at the University of Arizona, where Michael Marks, lead psychologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Tucson, was determined to keep vets from dropping out. He had watched the Vietnam veteran generation often fail in school. "I was damned if I was going to let that happen to another generation," he said.

What he and his colleagues found was that veterans assimilated fairly quickly into the general student population -- with the right kind of help. Student veterans enrolling at the University of Arizona are encouraged to start with an intensive, one-semester crash course in how to succeed in school.

"In our experience, six months, and they blossom," Marks said.

The university's SERV (Supportive Education for Returning Veterans) initiative is a three-course program designed to transition veterans into academia. One course teaches resilience skills; a second enables students to identify their own learning styles, to understand how tests are designed and graded and other insights into the academic culture. A third teaches leadership skills, instructing vets how to apply lessons learned from wartime service.

Student get full academic credit for the courses. And at semester's end, they're ready to merge into civilian campus life.

With this approach and other benefits for veterans -- accelerated admission, a drop-in center run by vets -- 95 percent of veterans are staying in school at the University of Arizona, said Marks.

The VA seems to be scrambling to catch up to the initiatives underway at the University of Arizona and other schools. The VA currently provides 26 counselors at 32 college campuses across the country to help veterans with adjustment issues, and more are being added, VA officials said.

The VA hopes this year to begin a mentor program in which third- and fourth-year veteran students can counsel younger veterans, said Curtis L. Coy, deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity at the Veterans Benefits Administration.

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