Kyle Jones, a Marine Corps veteran, spent Tuesday afternoon attending orientation at University of St. Thomas and will begin classes on Wednesday.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

School doors open for vets

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • September 8, 2009 - 10:35 PM

Beneath his name, Kyle Jones, and his rank, Sergeant, he wrote his plan: Student. ¶ The tall, deep-voiced Marine was floored that few others in the class on moving from military to civilian life shared his goal of going to college. ¶ "But looking back, it makes sense. The old GI Bill really limited what you could afford," Jones said. "The new GI Bill will revolutionize that, I think."

Jones is in the vanguard of the revolution coming with the new GI Bill's expanded benefits covering tuition, housing and even books; it will put some 250,000 American vets on campus by 2011.

Under a new companion effort, called the Yellow Ribbon program, many more, like Jones, will attend private colleges and universities. He starts classes at the University of St. Thomas today.

The size of the expected influx brings deep excitement and some concern, as students deal with the government's backlog of claims and schools scramble to prepare for their arrival.

Jones is a go-getter. By the time he graduated from Burnsville High School in 2003, he had already enlisted in the Marines. He later was deployed to Iraq.

During the quiet times there, when deserts didn't need patrolling, units didn't need monitoring and Iraqi soldiers didn't need teaching, Jones would plan for college.

"It's funny," he said, "In Iraq, you have hundreds of hours of tedious nothing to do. So I'd think: How can I plan this to maximize the benefits most?"

After consulting with a ranking officer and Harvard grad, he decided to attend Normandale Community College, starting there after his return to the United States in 2007. The $1,400 he received each month for college covered the school's cost, and not much else.

Last spring, when it came time to transfer, he thought public. Then he heard about the possibility of the Yellow Ribbon program, and "it expanded my horizons." He began lobbying St. Thomas to participate.

The same day the school finalized the program application, Jones turned his in. He was very first undergraduate to apply for the program at St. Thomas -- a university he "never, ever" could have afforded with the old plan. Now, he will attend for free.

Under the program, St. Thomas covers half the difference between the new, per-credit benefits and the actual cost of tuition and fees -- or $1,236 toward the nearly $15,000 in tuition and fees for 16 credits. The VA matches that. In the end, as many as 15 undergraduates and many more graduate students will have their education financed.

It's up to each school to decide whether it will participate in the program, how much it will contribute and how many students will get the awards.

So far, 14 colleges in the Minnesota Private College Council have elected to participate.

Getting used to vets

A first-of-its-kind report released this summer by several associations, including the American Council on Education, shows that public schools are much more likely than private colleges and universities to have programs designed for military veterans. While 74 percent of four-year public institutions surveyed had such programs, only 36 percent of private institutions did.

That's due, in part, because they haven't had all that many veterans attending.

St. Thomas counted only 75 current military, veterans and dependents last fall. Already this year, 21 students have applied under the Yellow Ribbon program.

As its veteran population swells, St. Thomas administrators are discussing whether and how to set up special services for them.

Twice this school year, it will offer two professional development sessions for staff called "We All Serve." Its personal counseling staff is putting together a support group for returning vets. People also are discussing whether to hold focus groups with veterans to ask them what they want and need, said Mary Ann Ryan, executive director of campus and residential life.

"Do they want space? A student group? Who are we to say?" Ryan said. "Sometimes, too, they need to experience the university before they know what to ask for."

He's still making plans

At the College of St. Scholastica, many of the 100 or so veterans were asking for space. It began a Veterans Resource Center, a room with couches, a computer and a flag that flew over Camp Liberty.

"It's a place to share with one another their experiences -- things a typical student wouldn't understand," said Clarence Sharpe, director of transfer admissions.

When Jones was researching schools, he asked each one whether they had a student veterans organization. Most of the private colleges, including St. Thomas, answered no. So in addition to working part-time, completing courses in his business management major and preparing for his MBA, he plans to start one.

Most of the 200 chapters of the Student Veterans of America are at public universities, said Derek Blumke, the organization's co-founder and executive director. He expects that with the new benefits, "we're going to see a lot more private schools starting chapters," he said.

Jones believes having a group will help St. Thomas attract veterans, then keep them on campus through what could be a tough transition.

"For people who are just coming out of the military, they're going to feel like, 'I'm the only one here,' " he said. "No one else knows where I'm coming from, no one else understands my story, my background and my experiences. As soon as they see there's an organization for them, all that will change."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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