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Urban or Rural - Supporting Student Veterans Wherever They Live

Collaboration has long been essential to creating sustainable education and career pathways for veterans and transitioning service members. CAEL’s advocacy for nontraditional learners has always led to natural partnerships with institutions seeking to better serve student veterans. In the fall of 2009, a new trend began to emerge that underscored the relevance of those partnerships: the first eligible cohorts of service members who had earned benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. With the bill’s expansion of education benefits, more veterans transitioned to higher education rather than directly entering the civilian workforce. As a result, there was greater urgency in ensuring postsecondary curricula and support services were well aligned with the unique needs of the military-connected population.

Although veterans acquire valuable skills during their service, a path to the civilian workplace may not be immediately apparent or recognized. As is the case with nontraditional learners in general, tailored resources that enable informed education and employment choices can help boost retention and completion, reduce student expenses, and launch learners into rewarding careers. In 2011, CAEL’s work to address service-to-education challenges led to the creation of the Veterans Higher Education Affinity Group (VHEAG). Over the last decade, CAEL has leveraged the collective voice of its VHEAG members in advocacy efforts, encouraging cross-learning and the development of best practices, addressing issues around military benefits, recognizing military learning through prior learning assessment, and advocating for disability accommodations.

With grant support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the VHEAG continues to serve as a unique learning and resource group. The group regularly convenes veteran-serving academic professionals from nearly 40 institutions - two-year colleges, four-year universities, and public and private schools. These institutions collaborate around a common priority: identifying and removing the barriers Chicagoland student veterans face when pursuing a postsecondary education.

Last year, CAEL expanded its partnership with the McCormick Foundation as it worked with a focused group of grantee partners to extend veterans programs. In October, CAEL was pleased to launch the Alliance for Veterans in Higher Education (AVHE), bringing the VHEAG model to Downstate Illinois. This new group brings together a diverse set of veteran-focused stakeholders including higher ed institutions, state and local agencies, and veteran service organizations. This unique collaboration offers a holistic perspective in maximizing educational opportunities and career success for rural veterans.

The new collaboration launched with AVHE’s inaugural meeting in October and continued with a series of focus groups over the spring. In June, CAEL held AVHE’s first annual summer symposium, where the group gained insight from leadership at the DoD’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP) as well as strategies for leveraging new updates recently made to the online ACE Military Guide. Breakout discussions identified future opportunities to increase awareness of scholarship opportunities for Illinois veterans as well as ways to work with local active duty and National Guard installations.

An additional dynamic that has emerged from CAEL’s recent work is the need to focus beyond degree completion and into career pathways. There is a trend for student veterans to earn a degree and pursue employment in urban areas, on the assumption there likely aren't rewarding opportunities to apply their skills and experience in rural areas. While job opportunities are greater in large cities, this widens the skills gap many rural Illinois communities face. To that end, AVHE is also centering on the importance of developing and sustaining viable career pathways located in rural communities.

With skills gaps threatening industries and entire economies, veterans have a vital role to play in sustainable talent pipelines. With training and experience in both hard and human skills, veterans should be a high priority among educators and employers looking for ways to further the mutual success they can find at the intersection of learning and work. For more information about CAEL’s work to support student veterans and their institutions, visit cael.org.

Doug Heckman, a former Air Force officer, is senior director of partnership development for CAEL.

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