Colleges Bridge Military-Civilian Divide

Experts say it is more important than ever for colleges to step forward and help veterans readjust. Image from education portal.

The nation's veteran population is expected to swell by a million or more in coming years as the military winds down more than a decade of conflicts. How veterans adjust to life out of uniform has become the subject of heightened scrutiny in the military community and beyond. Jobless rates are high among veterans. Employers are sometimes unaware of how military training can translate to the civilian workplace. And with many Americans unacquainted with military life, stereotypes of vets tend to occupy the extremes: They're either heroes or head cases.

With those concerns in mind, a growing number of colleges and affiliated groups are venturing beyond campus borders to try to bridge the military-civilian gap. Higher education, say scholars and advocates involved in such work, has pivotal civic and research roles to play in deepening people's familiarity with the veteran population.

Most Americans today have only tenuous connections, if any, to the military. Beyond the tiny minority that has served on active duty in the past decade—less than half of 1 percent, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center—familiarity with current military issues doesn't extend far. Nearly three-quarters of civilians polled by Pew said the general public doesn't understand the problems service members face.

Efforts between higher ed and outside groups mirrors similar attempts on the national stage to raise awareness of veterans' issues. Among them are Joining Forces, a campaign started by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to drum up civilian support; Hiring Our Heroes, run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and Got Your 6, an effort led by the entertainment industry; its name is military slang for "I've got your back."

The key seems to be collaboration. Universities are forming partnerships with companies, nonprofit groups, social-service providers, and government agencies to take up a variety of challenges shared by veterans. With their substantial resources and considerable influence in local and regional communities, universities are poised both to explore the challenges veterans face and to engage civilians in finding solutions. The latter effort, advocates say, is critical to veterans' success.