Student veterans often have a lot more on their plates than do 19-year-old classmates focused on which frat party to go to. There are spouses, children — sometimes demanding jobs.

Colleges take different approaches to try to help student vets do well in class while also shouldering many other responsibilities. One notable method: Ask veteran students to take on even more responsibilities.

The approach may seem counterintuitive, but schools say getting their veteran students involved in community service projects improves their performance in the classroom.

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"If you put more demands on these students, actually, and ask them to do more, they're retained in a lot higher numbers," said Mike Connolly, director of the University of Nebraska Omaha's Office of Military and Veteran Services.

Volunteering their time at food banks and assisting with hospice care helps student veterans maintain the bigger purpose — and connection to their peers and community — that many service members miss when they leave the military, he said.

"It’s really given them a lot of that sense of service," Connolly said. "It’s allowed them to be a lot more mission-driven."

Connolly’s school took the top spot among four-year schools, for the second straight year, in our Best for Vets: Colleges 2016 rankings. The University of South Florida, Eastern Kentucky University, D’Youville College in New York, and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, round out the top five. Our methodologyOur top online and nontraditional schools are ECPI University, Park University, Central Texas College, University of Maryland University College and Liberty University.

Among two-year schools, Nebraska’s Central Community College, Georgia Perimeter College, Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota, Clackamas Community College in Oregon and Northwestern Michigan College took the top spots.

As always, we used a rigorous, more-than-120-question survey to evaluate schools. In addition, newly released public data allowed us to consider more information, from more sources, than ever before as part of the process.

We pulled data from the Veterans Affairs Department, Defense Department and three Education Department databases for information on everything from veteran-related policies to average salaries after graduation.

More veteran outcomes

As the federal government produces more information relevant to student veterans, schools are increasingly doing the same.

For the first time in the history of Best for Vets rankings, a majority of schools — around 57 percent — were able to provide at least one type of veteran-specific academic outcome data metric, such as retention, graduation or course completion rates.

The data showed military and veteran students succeeding at rates roughly in line with their nonveteran peers — despite the greater obstacles to academic success that veterans often face.

Among colleges able to provide data, the most recent military- and veteran-specific graduation rates averaged 53 percent. Because that figure includes both four- and two-year schools, it compares well to the most recent nationwide graduation rates published by the Education Department of 59 percent at four-year schools and 29 percent at two-year schools.

Retention rates, which measure how many students remain in school a year after first enrolling, tell a similar story. The most recent military- and veteran-specific retention rates averaged 67 percent in our survey, as compared with nationwide averages of 80 percent for four-year schools and 60 percent for two-year schools.

The nationwide Education Department averages represent a poor comparison base for military and veteran students. These figures account for only first-time, full-time students, who are typically fresh out of high school.

Military and veteran students are more likely to be adults who previously enrolled in school and are more likely to need to attend school part-time due to competing family or work responsibilities. Each of these factors marks a student as nontraditional and is typically associated with lower retention and graduation rates.

It would be fairer to compare military and veteran student success rates to those of civilian nontraditional students. But the Education Department collects much less information on the outcomes of such students. A spokesman for the department was recently unable to produce any academic outcome data for adult or non-first-time students.

What schools are doing

The fact that military-affiliated students appear to be succeeding in class at rates similar to traditional students who have a much easier path to graduation is telling.

On average, military and veteran students accounted for about 14 percent of the student population of schools responding to our survey.

Better than three-quarters have a veterans office, while more than four-fifths have a military or veteran club.

Almost seven in 10 responding schools told us they had an administrator or similar school leader who was a veteran, reservist or military spouse.

Fewer than a quarter of schools gave veterans an admissions preference.

An overwhelming number of schools have signed on to military education policy initiatives, including the White House’s Principles of Excellence for military education and a Defense Department memorandum of understanding, which is tied to eligibility for military tuition assistance.

Still, many schools have trouble staying in line with the $250-per-credit-hour cap for TA. A little over half of schools did so for undergraduate tuition, while only about a quarter of schools met the mark for graduate tuition.

The picture appears a bit sunnier with the Post-9/11 GI Bill and its supplemental Yellow Ribbon program.

For public colleges and universities, Post-9/11 will pay all program costs at the in-state tuition rate. Following action by Congress attempting to push such schools to waive out-of-state tuition costs for veterans, nearly 90 percent of schools told us they have such waivers in place.

Nick Gipson, right
Nick Gipson, right

Nick Gipson, right, a former Army specialist, says the veteran tutoring program at the University of South Florida is supportive, "like being back in" the service.

Photo Credit: Aimee Blodgett/University of South Florida

For schools, public and private alike, whose costs exceed what Post-9/11 will pay, about 90 percent participated in the Yellow Ribbon Program to help make up the difference.

About three quarters of schools offer military- or veteran-related training to faculty, staff or students.

Meanwhile, more than 84 percent of schools reported having at least one staff member whose work consists mostly of military- and veteran-related measures. Among those schools, the median number of such employees was three.

More than a third of schools told us they’ve instituted priority registration policies, which tend mostly to be intended to help veterans get the classes they need to earn degrees before their education benefits run out.

But one school with such a policy noticed an unexpected benefit for the vet students registering for classes before anyone else.

"When they see that someone else has registered for a course in early registration, they know that it’s another veteran in that class," said Sue Flannigan, veterans coordinator for Inver Hills Community College. That can help keep vets from feeling alone, while building a sense of community among the school’s veteran students.

Travis Karr, director of veteran and military services for Central Community College in Nebraska, said veterans tend to miss two aspects of military life in particular: the camaraderie and the larger purpose. Karr’s school tries to fill both gaps, promoting academic success as the new purpose while working to make the campus a strong military community.

Schools that establish such a culture can build on it by enlisting student veterans to help each other, as the University of South Florida does with its veteran tutoring program.

Nick Gipson, a former Army specialist, said he takes advantage of such tutoring "almost every semester" at USF and that it makes a difference to get help from someone who also has a military background and can lay out goals and objectives in the manner learned in uniform.

"I’ve used civilian tutoring, and there’s a complete, 180-degree-turnaround difference," Gipson said. "It’s like being back in and having ... your support network."

That support network can also grow into a professional network that pays dividends long after graduation, said Larry Braue, director of USF’s Office of Veterans Services.

"There’s something about college that’s really enriching. The relationships you build are ones they will need as part of their future," Braue said.

It's not an option

Many college officials and students emphasized an even more basic point: In the 21st century, higher education is fast becoming mandatory.

"If you really want to get anywhere and be successful in the civilian sector, you need a degree under your belt," said Ryan Bissing, a former Air Force staff sergeant who enrolled at Park University in early 2013.

While schools have a variety of services and aides available to veterans, not all students will proactively seek them out. So some schools are taking the initiative and making first contact with student vets.

Mark Eister, director of military outreach for Georgia Perimeter College, said he and his staff reach out to every military-connected student they know of in the first few weeks of a semester, making some 1,200 phone calls.

At Eastern Kentucky University, former Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Morgan Tipton hadn’t considered seeking out the veterans office, but she didn’t have to.

"I didn’t look for them. They looked for me. And I think that says something," she said.

School officials helped her figure out all of the credits due her through her military and educational experience. It made a big difference.

"I came into this school thinking I was going to be a freshman and with all my military credits and everything, I’m now classified as a junior," she said. "I was completely surprised."

Veteran students often are surprised at how well prepared they are for school, even after years out of the traditional classroom setting, said Ann Treadaway, director of veteran and military programs and services at Rutgers.

“I would tell veterans: If you can get through the military, you can definitely get through college,” she said.