Best for Vets: Annual College Rankings

The University of Nebraska at Omaha is named #1 four-year institution in the annual Military Times education poll.

The problem: Not everyone walks into the veterans office.

"We have a big self-sorting issue, where the people who need our services probably the most don't use those resources," said Mike Connolly, director of the school's Office of Military and Veteran Services.

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To combat this, the veterans office now regularly reaches out to military and veteran students, as well as military family members, with emails and multiple phone calls to check on how they're doing and make sure they know about the support available. In the initiative's first year, Connolly said, they have seen a "unanimously positive" response from students — and a busier veterans office.

"You're not going to school on your own. Get that through your head," he said.

The lists: 4-year schoolsThe lists: Online & nontraditional schoolsThe lists: 2-year schoolsThe University of Nebraska Omaha is tops among four-year schools in our Best for Vets: Colleges 2015 rankings. University of Maryland University College led online and nontraditional schools, and Nebraska's Central Community College is once again our top-ranked two-year school.

Several hundred schools participated in this year's survey, filling out a detailed questionnaire with well over 100 questions that delved into the issues most crucial to student vets. Schools that identified themselves as primarily career and technical colleges were considered in a separate set of rankings, published last month. Our MethodologyTo decide which schools made the list and where they should be ranked, we compared not only schools' survey responses, but also data compiled by the U.S. Education Department, including academic success measures.

Those Education Department stats can be informative with regards to college students who are coming fresh out of high school, but they tend to leave out vets, service members and other students who took less traditional paths to higher education.

While more schools than ever before are tracking their military students' academic success rates, most still do not. Only about 45 percent of schools responding to our survey provided any military-specific graduation, retention, persistence or course completion rates. That's substantially higher than the 11 percent of institutions that tracked similar stats two years ago or the one-third that tracked them last year — yet there is clearly still room for improvement.

The most recent average military-specific graduation rate, among schools that were able to provide this information, was 53 percent. The figure includes both four- and two-year schools and thus compares well with the most recent available nationwide averages of 56 percent for four-year schools and 33 percent for two-year schools, as reported by the Education Department.

Nearly nine in 10 schools have signed on to the White House's Principles of Excellence for military and vet education. A similar number have signed on to the first Defense Department Memorandum of Understanding, which laid out particular rules for schools to follow regarding their military students.

Nearly every school that responded to our survey — more than 93 percent — accepts military credit recommendations made by the American Council on Education. Most also recognize various credit-by-exam programs.

And two-thirds of schools told us that their administration or senior leadership includes current or former service members or their families.

University of Maryland University College has focused on military education since the days of the World War II-era GI Bill. But the school recently re-evaluated its approach, surveying its students, reaching out to student vet organizations and other groups for perspective. Through this process, the school developed new programs and initiatives and rocketed up our rankings.

One new development at UMUC is Project Jumpstart, a one-credit online course designed to help vets and other nontraditional students learn how to improve their chances for success in college and figure out what classes and degrees will get them where they want to go.

More Best For Vets: Career & Technical Colleges 2015"I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done up front helping students choose the right degree," said James Cronin, the school's vice president for military partnerships. "Just don't take courses because you're going to get the GI Bill."

Travis Karr, veterans and military services director at Central Community College, offered similar advice, saying vets should use their GI Bill benefits to further their long-term education goals, not just for "fast money."

One of the biggest challenges for vets who strap on the book bag right after taking off the uniform is the loss of camaraderie and purpose that the military provided. Schools and their vet students must work together to ease the transition.

"What I think colleges really should focus on ... is to provide a sense of belonging, and then use their educational goals as a sense of purpose," Karr said.

"We know what that person's going through, and we know the barriers and challenges they're going to face."