Marc Hamlin

Gathering higher education data on student veterans proves difficult

As part of recent efforts to gather better data on higher education experiences of veterans, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) asked universities to track their graduation rates. But before UT can provide those statistics, the school will need to figure out how many student veterans there are.

“We have a ballpark figure, but no precise number,” Marc Hamlin, vice president of UT’s Student Veteran Association, said. “The Office of the Registrar only sees people who are pulling veteran benefits, which includes dependents and spouses, and they don’t classify people as veteran or non-veteran.”

Gary Romriell, a veteran who served in Baghdad and now works in the Student Veteran Services (SVS) office, said the SVS knows of roughly 650 student veterans at UT.

“But that estimate changes depending on who you’re talking to,” Romriell said. “There are also veterans who are undeclared, who pay for their tuition and don’t necessarily inform us of their presence, and that makes it hard to get a figure.”

While UT doesn’t have complete information about its student veterans, Hamlin said student veterans are often equally uninformed. According to data gathered from the 2010 National Survey of Veterans released by the VA, there is a widespread lack of knowledge among veterans about the various federal and state benefits they are afforded.

Roughly 40 percent of veterans reported they knew little to nothing about veterans benefits. Additionally, 36 percent of veterans who had not taken advantage of VA education benefits said it was because they were not aware of them.

“It’s not a very good system,” Hamlin said.

Romriell, who served one tour in Baghdad before being medically discharged, said the lack of transparency in the VA’s bureaucratic system makes the search for benefits complicated. 

“The department isn’t known for customer service, and they receive funding based on how much they can save, rather than how many veterans they can help,” Romriell said. “A lot of us are wandering in the dark.”

Veterans are typically eligible for a variety of education benefits, including those resulting from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which Congress passed in 2008. The bill pays veteran tuitions directly to institutions for up to 36 months, while providing a monthly allowance for housing and books. For Texan veterans, the Hazlewood Act provides up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at in-state public schools. 

Another impediment to tracking statistics about veteran students is that they face different challenges than non-veterans. Hamlin, who graduated from high school in 2004, said many of the students he works with support themselves financially and have different priorities than many students who come to UT straight from high school.

“Veterans are typically older than most of their classmates, and we’ve already had a lot of life experience,” Hamlin said. “We’re taking a break from supporting ourselves to go to school.”

Romriell said the SVS is working to develop programs, including a mentoring initiative and a faculty sensitivity training campaign, to help student veterans find support at UT.

“We’re nontraditional students,” Romriell said. “There are different challenges that we have to confront.”

As part of recent efforts to gather better data on higher education experiences of veterans, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) asked universities to track their graduation rates. But before UT can provide those statistics, the school will need to figure out how many student veterans there are.

“We have a ballpark figure, but no precise number,” Marc Hamlin, vice president of UT’s Student Veteran Association, said. “The Office of the Registrar only sees people who are pulling veteran benefits, which includes dependents and spouses, and they don’t classify people as veteran or non-veteran.”

Gary Romriell, a veteran who served in Baghdad and now works in the Student Veteran Services (SVS) office, said the SVS knows of roughly 650 student veterans at UT.

“But that estimate changes depending on who you’re talking to,” Romriell said. “There are also veterans who are undeclared, who pay for their tuition and don’t necessarily inform us of their presence, and that makes it hard to get a figure.”

While UT doesn’t have complete information about its student veterans, Hamlin said student veterans are often equally uninformed. According to data gathered from the 2010 National Survey of Veterans released by the VA, there is a widespread lack of knowledge among veterans about the various federal and state benefits they are afforded.

Roughly 40 percent of veterans reported they knew little to nothing about veterans benefits. Additionally, 36 percent of veterans who had not taken advantage of VA education benefits said it was because they were not aware of them.

“It’s not a very good system,” Hamlin said.

Romriell, who served one tour in Baghdad before being medically discharged, said the lack of transparency in the VA’s bureaucratic system makes the search for benefits complicated. 

“The department isn’t known for customer service, and they receive funding based on how much they can save, rather than how many veterans they can help,” Romriell said. “A lot of us are wandering in the dark.”

Veterans are typically eligible for a variety of education benefits, including those resulting from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which Congress passed in 2008. The bill pays veteran tuitions directly to institutions for up to 36 months, while providing a monthly allowance for housing and books. For Texan veterans, the Hazlewood Act provides up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at in-state public schools. 

Another impediment to tracking statistics about veteran students is that they face different challenges than non-veterans. Hamlin, who graduated from high school in 2004, said many of the students he works with support themselves financially and have different priorities than many students who come to UT straight from high school.

“Veterans are typically older than most of their classmates, and we’ve already had a lot of life experience,” Hamlin said. “We’re taking a break from supporting ourselves to go to school.”

Romriell said the SVS is working to develop programs, including a mentoring initiative and a faculty sensitivity training campaign, to help student veterans find support at UT.

“We’re nontraditional students,” Romriell said. “There are different challenges that we have to confront.”

Published on January 16, 2013 as "Student veterans difficult to track". 

Texas veterans may soon be getting increased benefits if two bills before the state Legislature are passed this spring.

State representative Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, submitted a bill earlier this month that would mandate the establishment of a veterans resource center at one higher education institution for each geographic region of the state. The bill breaks the state up into 10 geographic regions including Central Texas. The centers would serve their entire regions.

According to the bill, the centers would work to identify the services veterans and their families can use to optimize their pursuit of a college education. Other duties would include working with the institutions of higher education in their region to implement those services, raising awareness of veteran programs, ensuring that veterans successfully complete their education and promoting the establishment of a student veterans group on each campus in the region.

Government senior Marc Hamlin, Air Force veteran and vice president of the Student Veterans Association at UT, said the bill could provide increased legitimacy for the association that members could use to further its cause.

UT spokesperson Gary Susswein said the University cannot take an official stance on legislation, but UT works hard to help its veterans.

“UT is extremely committed to making our campus accessible and hospitable to military veterans and their families,” Susswein said. “We are regularly recognized as one of the top colleges in the nation for veterans and we offer myriad resources and services to our students who are veterans.”

The Veterans Resource Center at UT was established in November 2011 and works to assist veterans at UT by providing financial, academic, social and physical support. The center works to educate veterans at UT by informing them of the benefits available to them and is staffed by a full-time student veteran center coordinator and a licensed clinical psychologist.

Economics senior Stephen Ollar, president of the Student Veterans Association, said while the University works hard to ensure the success of its veterans, there is still work to be done.

“Any and all services which promote veteran reintegration into society and higher education are needed.” Ollar said. “UT could do more on this front.”

Ben Armstrong, student veteran coordinator for the Office of the Dean of Students, said roughly 655 veterans attend UT based on registration information.

Hamlin said the registrar’s office is often slow in providing certification for those veterans necessary for them to receive their benefits.

“We have a little home here and it is meant to take care of us,” Hamlin said. “The biggest downfall is the registrar’s office. Nothing is automated. Nothing is efficient.”

He has authored an amendment on behalf of the Student Veterans Association to the current state educational code that would force universities to customize parts of the registration process for veterans to speed it up and make it more efficient.

Hamlin said he has presented the amendment to a state representative, and he expects to see it filed and passed in the 2013 legislative session.

Another bill filed earlier this month by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, calls for increased flexibility in the transferability of veteran educational benefits to their families.

Current law requires beneficiaries of dead veterans’ educational benefits to be 25 or younger the first semester day they receive benefits. The bill would strike the age provision. It would also expand the scope of who would be allowed to oversee those benefits following the death of a veteran.

Hamlin said he supports both bills before the legislature and does not expect them to have any trouble passing, as services for veterans tend to be a fairly politically neutral issue that most politicians support.

“If you just keep it veterans alone, on its own separate bill, no attachments, earmarks or anything, it should pass,” Hamlin said. 

Printed on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 as: Bills aim to improve resources for student veterans statewide 

Many of UT’s student veterans may skip the annual veteran’s football game next month because of difficulties with seating.

Every year, UT honors veterans by decidating one of its games in November to veterans. But student veteran attendance might not be very high this year. Marc Hamlin, vice president of the Student Veterans Association, said student veterans are frustrated with UT athletics because of student seating issues. This past summer, Hamlin and Stephen Ollar, president of Student Veterans Association, approached the Texas Athletics Department about the possibility of working around Texas Athletics’ current group seating system to get student veterans better seats. UT was not able to help them.

“This is pushing a lot of veterans away from getting to go to the football game,” Hamlin said. “Student veterans do not want to sit next to what is to them an obnoxious 18-year-old. They are just on different maturity levels.”

Veteran students are usually much older than UT’s traditional students, and Hamlin said many veterans are not attending the games right now because of frustrations with seating.

Under Texas Athletics‘ current system, students who want seating with their friends or a student organization can make a group when they purchase their football tickets. UT’s Athletics Department assigns tickets based on a group’s lowest class qualification. A group with all seniors is likely to get seats in the lower deck, and a group with all seniors and one freshman is likely to get seats in the upper deck.

Hamlin said this system is fair for most students but has created a problem for student veterans. If the student veterans register for a group all together, with both seniors and freshmen, then they will be seated with other freshmen, likely in the upper deck.

“We will have a 31-year-old student veteran who is classified as a freshman, so he is sitting with 18-year-olds,” Hamlin said. “That is a problem for him. He does not go to the games.”

Hamlin said he went to UT’s box office first this past summer to see if he could work around UT’s current system. He said he was told that only spirit groups can get special seating.

Then Hamlin said he went to UT’s Athletics Department to try to get the Student Veterans Association classified as a spirit group. There Hamlin tried to contact Mack Brown, Texas football head coach, but Brown’s secretary referred Hamlin to others in the Athletics Department.

“We got a lot of sympathy but not a lot of action,” Hamlin said. “The Dean of Students has been working with us great. But when it gets outside of the Dean of Students, not a lot happens sometimes.”

The email Hamlin sent to Brown’s secretary was bounced around to many people, but no action was ever taken. Hamlin said conversations about the possibility of giving the Student Veterans Association special seating eventually died.

Nick Voinis, senior associate athletic director, said they could not help the student veterans because they approached them too late for this season.

When asked if TexasSports would be able to help the student veterans order tickets differently next year because of their concerns, Voinis said, “That’s the way all other students do it ... next year they can go online just like other students do and order them as a group.”

Currently Hamlin said as few as eight veteran students are sitting together at the football games. Hamlin said they are requesting seating for 30.

Attending football games together is one social activity Hamlin says the Student Veteran Association does to foster a bond between fellow veterans. Because of this, Hamlin said it is important that student veterans can sit together at football games.

“A good student life for a veteran is to be around other veterans,” Hamlin said. “But we can’t get that.”

Printed on Wednesday, October 17, 2012 as: Veterans struggle for game seating