Studies show social support key to successful academic outcomes for veterans, military service members

By Lynn Armitage, WCER communications

The transition from military to college life can be a socially difficult one for military service members and veterans (SSM/Vs). However, members of this unique and talented student population stand a better chance of success when they are supported by a strong network of fellow students, veteran coordinators, faculty, or other higher education practitioners, according to two separate reports by the Veteran Education to Workforce Affinity and Success Study (VETWAYS).

VETWAYS is a three-year, $556,000 project funded by the National Science Foundation. It was launched last year at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in UW–Madison’s School of Education. The project is focused on the college-to-workforce pathways of SSM/Vs from five, four-year University of Wisconsin System institutions: Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, and Stout. In the last academic year, more than 3,000 veterans attended UW System universities.

Ross Benbow

Ross Benbow, VETWAYS principal investigator, aims to shed light on a subject not studied by many scholars, even though recent data shows that in 2018 alone, nearly 650,000 veterans and 230,000 service members used educational benefits to attend U.S. colleges and universities.

“We hope to advance knowledge on what specific kinds of social support lead to academic and career success for these students,” says Benbow, a researcher with WCER who earned his PhD from the School of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies. “Then we can provide data to university practitioners about educational programming that could help SSM/Vs develop these supports.”

In the military, SSM/Vs become accustomed to chains of command, structure and a unifying purpose, according to VETWAYS interviewees. The study’s first published brief explores how these unique perspectives translate to college life. In the research brief, “Student military service member and veteran university transitions: The cultural importance of camaraderie and social support,” results show that camaraderie is the most meaningful aspect of military life SSM/Vs find missing from a university. As students explained, the comparative absence of close, family-like relationships in college was often a negative influence on SSM/V university experiences.

The second related research brief, “Campus belonging among student military service members and veterans in STEMM majors: A social network and social capital study,” explores relationships that can be valuable for SSM/Vs in college. VETWAYS researchers found that SSM/Vs in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical (STEMM) majors who developed social ties with fellow students and university educators — particularly those offering an outlet for personal, academic and career discussions — experienced a more positive sense of belonging on campus. This feeling of “fitting in” has been linked closely to more positive academic outcomes.

Joe Rasmussen, veteran service coordinator at UW-Madison and member of the VETWAYS advisory board, says that this new research has offered helpful insights into how universities can better support the academic and career pathways of SSM/Vs ― and there are more discoveries to come.

“As we develop new models to support our students,” Rasmussen says, “this work will be particularly helpful in understanding student transitions into the university, as well as the influence of social connections on student life during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The U.S. Marine Corps veteran adds that after COVID-19 shut down college campuses earlier this year, 42 percent of SSM/Vs shared in an online survey in March that they expected to have worse or much worse social support due to the pandemic and social distancing measures.

With the first research studies completed, what is next on the VETWAYS agenda?

“One of our main goals is to support educators working with military service members and veterans in the five Wisconsin universities where we gathered data,” Benbow explains. “Currently, we’re putting together data reports for each institution. Next year, we’ll gather information on the academic persistence and career trajectories of all our student participants.”

As this longitudinal study continues, researchers hope to understand what specific kinds of social supports link to more gratifying outcomes across this important student population. Benbow says that the most important standard for “success” is how satisfied/gratified students are with their trajectory.