Mike Arne couldn’t help feeling out of place sitting in classrooms at Washington State University for the past two years.
Arne, a 29-year-old senior anthropology major, enrolled after returning from Iraq, where he served as a corporal in the Marine Corps. Stationed near Fallujah in 2004, Arne fought in what would become the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War.
Upon his return to the U.S., Arne struggled to assimilate back into the civilian world and to relate to his younger classmates. “You kind of overhear conversations that may be going on in class, and you just think to yourself, ‘That is so petty. Why is that even a big deal?’ ”
The years of persistence have finally paid off for Arne, who will graduate today along with roughly 3,200 other WSU students. But university administrators say they have no idea just how many of Arne’s fellow student veterans will join him at the commencement ceremonies, because – like many other colleges across the country – WSU does not track veteran graduation rates.
The trend has critics and school administrators concerned that the colleges are failing to accurately evaluate whether they are doing enough to help veterans succeed in the classroom.
“I don’t believe it’s being addressed methodically or quantitatively,” said Lt. Col. Craig Whiteside, a retired Army officer who teaches a class that helps veterans manage the challenges of college. “Are veterans being successful here, and if they’re not – at least compared to the rest of the population – why is that the case?”
In April of last year, President Barack Obama issued an executive order instructing the departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense and Education to monitor veteran graduation rates. About nine months later, the agencies had made little progress, and the VA joined with the National Student Clearinghouse and the Student Veterans of America to announce its own effort to track graduation rates.
VA spokesman Randy Noller said the VA began collecting graduation data from some schools in fall 2011, but so far not enough information has been gathered for a formal analysis.
Administrators at Eastern Washington University hope to begin tracking veteran graduations in the upcoming school year in a system that will rely on students to report their veteran status.
“We claim around 600 veterans who come to school here by tracking their GI Bill funding,” said Lane Anderson, the school’s veterans benefits supervisor. “However, I would estimate another 500 to 600 veteran students come to school here who we do not track at all.”
About a month ago, WSU had a tool built into Zzusis – the university’s student information system – that will allow the university to compile information on students’ veteran status, said Matt Zimmerman, the university’s veterans coordinator. Capturing the information shouldn’t be difficult, he said.
“We’ll use the same instrument that we use for the general population and other, special populations,” Zimmerman said.
Fran Hermanson, the associate director of institutional research at the university, said her office should have enough information by the end of the summer to begin an analysis of student veteran graduation rates. But she is not sure how soon the office will be able to provide the results.
A national push to monitor the rates began when Congress expanded GI Bill benefits in 2008, he said. WSU grew interested in that process two years ago with the advent of Zzusis.
The previous student information system didn’t have a way to collect the data, Zimmerman said.
Some veterans make their way through school with little trouble, but Whiteside suspects veterans graduate at a lower rate than the rest of the student population.
Many go into college hoping to pursue the most challenging majors. And some, like Arne, even switch majors or schools a number of times before finding the right match.
“They’re confident in their discipline, and they’ve seen how complex and complicated the world is, so they really want to go back in,” Whiteside said. “But that’s not going to make up for 12 years of maybe poor math academic prep in high school.”