With the number of veterans pursuing higher education continuing to rise, Billings colleges are working to expand the services they provide and recently earned national rankings for their efforts.
U.S. News and World Report’s inaugural “Best Colleges for Veterans” list, released in November, listed Rocky Mountain College as the No. 5 regional college in the West for veterans.
“What we’re able to do here at Rocky is we’re able to tailor the need and particular services that our service members require,” said Austin Mapston, director of admissions. “We’re not able to accommodate all of the vets out there, but for those who are looking for the services we provide, we’re a great option.”
Also in the rankings, Montana State University Billings came in at 24th for regional universities in the west.
The report includes only schools ranked in U.S. News and World Report’s best colleges of 2014 list and is made up of 234 schools separated into 10 categories based on region and type of institution.
To qualify, the schools had to belong to an institution that is part of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium, belong to an institution certified for the GI Bill and take part in the related Yellow Ribbon Program. If they meet all three requirements, they are then ranked based on their ranking in the best colleges list.
Yellowstone County already has one of the highest veteran populations in the country, estimated at about 20 percent.
About 5 percent — 41 total — of Rocky students receive veterans benefits and Mapston said that number will rise.
“We are seeing an uptick, especially as the conflicts abroad continue to wind down,” he said. “There’s going to be a large population out there with GI benefits.”
Rocky offers a number of programs to help its student veterans. One of the most prominent is its involvement in the Yellow Ribbon Program.
The GI Bill will pay up to about $19,000 in tuition and fees for qualified veterans. Through the Yellow Ribbon Program, Rocky will cover as much as half of the remaining tuition and fees, which the Department of Veterans Affairs will match.
The school also brings in a family life counselor who contracts with the Department of Defense to provide support and assistance to veterans on campus.
Earlier this year, the school brought in a veterans assistance bus through the VA and the student body has been active in support efforts, whether raising money for homeless vets or organizing holiday mail campaigns for deployed troops.
“We really do try to embrace it,” Mapston said. “It’s a commitment on both ends. We definitely want to embrace and recognize their commitment.”
Mapston said Rocky’s aviation program is especially popular with both veterans and people looking to enter military service, with about 10 percent of that program’s graduates entering the military.
Capt. Janel Wiese, an assistant professor of military science employed by the Montana Army National Guard, runs the combined ROTC program at Rocky and MSUB.
There are 27 cadets between the two schools. Four of them have prior military service while 17 are currently serving in either the Guard or the U.S. Army Reserves.
“It’s a win-win for both schools and the veterans,” she said of the veterans programs offered at Billings’ two main colleges. “It’s obviously providing our veterans with a quality education because both of the campuses here in town are awesome. But the campuses are also winning because they’re getting these veterans here from their military service, and that brings in a really well-rounded student.”
Trudy Carey, MSUB’s director of disability support and veterans services, said 274 students — 193 at MSUB and 81 on the City College Campus — receive veterans’ benefits and she expects the veteran population in higher education to double in the next five years as more and more return home or exit the service.
“We need to have the infrastructure in place for that,” she said. “It’s important to let them know that the school’s there for them.”
Just under 5,000 students attend MSUB and City College.
In addition to scholarship and support programs, including academic support, the university recently hired Meridith Cox as its veterans support coordinator to help with those efforts.
It has also set up an MSUB veterans Facebook page and has partnered with career services to help with job searches.
Most prominent recently among MSUB’s efforts might be its new Veterans Lounge, which was dedicated in November. The lounge and another one at City College finished in September, was part of $1 million provided to Montana colleges and universities by the Montana Legislature to support veterans returning to school.
More than $156,000 was allocated to the two schools for veterans support.
“What they want is for these veterans to have the opportunity to come to school, to stay in school and to get jobs in Montana,” Carey said.
The lounge is a place where veterans can meet, be around people with similar experiences, study or just hang out, she said.
Both MSUB and Rocky also work with Veterans Upward Bound, a pre-college program that helps veterans get ready for higher education.
Another part of MSUB’s efforts is ensuring as smooth a transition as possible as they enter college. Available services include tutors, health and mental health support and disability aid.
Carey said colleges and universities need to keep in mind that the veterans aren’t fresh faces just out of high school.
“When the veterans come back, they come back to a different world,” she said. “They need to re-acclimate and they need to have a way to get back into society and at first they’re going to need some help.
“It’s important to let them know that the school’s there for them. They want to get here, they want to get an education, they want to get on with life and they’re already trying to catch up. There’s a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge that they’re bringing into their educational experience and we need to meet them where they’re coming from.”