The making of a military-friendly school

How UND meets the educational needs of military personnel, veterans and their families — Goal 6 of the Strategic Plan

The Veterans & Military Services office at the University of North Dakota works with veterans, active-duty and reserve service members as well as their relatives to help them secure educational benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and succeed on campus and online. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

When Colin Sabie first stepped on the University of North Dakota campus, he felt unprepared for college.

Sabie, who hails from Minneapolis, Minn., completed three semesters “just kind of spinning my wheels,” he said, before venturing into the U.S. Army.

There, he spent six years as a UAV mechanic – time accented with a deployment to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. At the start of 2017, Sabie was discharged and opted to give UND another shot.

“When I decided I was going to get out of the Army and I go back to school for something, it was ‘Well, why not figure out why some of the things are designed the way that they are,’” said Sabie, cueing to his experience fixing unmanned vehicles in the military.

Today, Sabie is a junior pursuing mechanical engineering at UND.

Returning to the University with a newfound mission was “really simple,” he said. Securing assistance through the Post-9/11 GI Bill from the Department of Veterans Affairs further reduced the stress of going back into the classroom.

The federal program, which grants educational benefits to military service members, not only covers Sabie’s tuition and fees. It also offers about $600 per semester for textbooks and $1,200 per month for housing.

“That’s really, really nice, because it’s a lot less pressure to get a job,” said Sabie. “Especially with how busy school is, I wouldn’t want to try and balance working with doing all the coursework and study.”

There are other VA-managed assistance programs for military personnel – as well as their relatives – who want to earn a degree. The University also works hard to support servicemembers-turned-students – an effort that has gained UND the designation of one of the most military-friendly schools in the nation, on campus and online.

Goal 6 of the One UND Strategic Plan calls on the University to “meet the educational needs of active-duty military personnel, veterans and their families.” Today, one in seven UND students take advantage of the University’s extensive package of services for veterans, active-duty servicemembers and reservists, as well as their families. That package includes in-state tuition rates and a slew of programs that specifically cater to students with a military background.

UND has also nurtured partnerships with the Air Force to help active-duty members earn credits and apply them toward a UND degree.

As an institution in a community known for its commitment to military families, UND also offers such perks as Fighting Hawks Military Appreciation games – women’s basketball on Nov. 24, hockey on Jan. 3 and men’s basketball on Feb. 8. Moreover, through Operation Enduring Friendship, Athletics has $5 tickets to men’s and women’s basketball, football and volleyball matchups for active military, veterans and their families.

In the Q&A below, Jessica Reule, who heads UND’s Veterans & Military Services office, talks in detail about how UND students who are veterans can go about getting their benefits.

(The below conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)

UND Today: What is the Post-9/11 GI Bill and how does it compare to the Forever GI Bill, which took effect in August 2018?

Reule: The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers benefits that servicemen and women can use depending on how long they were in the service. The Forever GI Bill just makes a couple of changes to that. It allows them to use benefits longer than they were originally intended. Benefits were originally written to be used for 15 years for the service member, or if they transferred that benefit to their spouse or to their child, it was 10 years. Whereas, the Forever GI Bill has no time limit for that service member to use it.

UND Military Friendly cards

The Veterans & Military Services office made these cards, which compile tips on military friendliness, with the help of military students. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

What do students with military background need to do in order to get educational help from the VA and communicate with the University?

Even though they have benefits available to them, eligible students still need to apply with the VA to get those benefits. There are forms that they have to fill out. Depending on what type of benefit they’re using, the VA will have to either meet with that student or verify that they qualify for those benefits by verifying their dates of service and their time on active duty.

Then, once the student applies with the VA, the student has to wait a little while to get approved. On the UND side, there is the opt-in process. That just means that even when they get the VA’s approval, students still need to tell the school that they want to use that type of financial aid.

For a first-year student, would it be advisable to first apply with the VA and then apply for admission at UND?

Typically, the order that we recommend is to connect with the VA first to make sure that they have that benefit available to them. If a student is not able to get that financial aid, they might not be financially stable enough to attend UND. Also, the VA process takes a couple of months, sometimes longer. So we always encourage students to connect with the VA and get their benefits figured out.

While they’re waiting for that to be processed, they can still apply to UND knowing that once they hear back from the VA, they’ll either be approved, in which case they can take the next steps to use that financial aid; or if they’re not approved, maybe they would delay their admission to UND for a semester or two. That way, they could secure other funding or perhaps provide more information to the VA for eventual approval.

Why would the VA not approve an application for educational support by a military service member?

The agency almost always does approve the applications. But if a student submits the wrong application, he or she will be denied. Sometimes it’s just that simple: ‘Oh, you filled out the wrong form, for the wrong type of financial aid based on your service branch.’

Other times, the student’s military branch has not updated the VA with the time that the service member has been deployed or has been in training. If the student is applying for those benefits before the military branch has had a chance to update the VA, a denial is likely but not irreversible.

Is the application process the same for active-duty members?

It works very much the same way. But that’s a perfect example of the possibility that a military branch might not have updated a student’s service time with the VA.

What about students who might have taken some courses in connection with their military service?

We accept all military credits but most of the time, they fall under the elective category. But we also highly encourage students to meet with their academic advisers. The adviser looks at that content that the student has learned in the military and figures out whether any of it applies to classes that are already required at UND. This way, we can check off some degree requirements or essential studies requirements, too.

How generous can the VA be?

It depends on what type of benefit a student is using. If they’re using federal tuition assistance, which is one form of financial aid, they can get a discount of 35 percent by their school. And then, through their service branch, they’ll get reimbursed at the end of the semester for the other 65 percent that the student had to pay out of pocket. That’s the type of aid that our active-duty students are primarily using.

They could also be using the Forever GI Bill, which, as I mentioned, expanded the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Or, they could be using a couple of other programs that differ in their coverage of tuition and fees, housing and other expenses.

Would the VA pay for any class a student takes?

The VA has a stipulation that they will pay only for classes that are required for the student’s degree. Because it is a benefit to the student, the VA wants the student to be working towards some goal. And the way the VA knows that they’re working towards a goal is to declare a major. If it’s an essential studies class, that’s required for every major and, thus, the VA pays for it.

How does the VA keep track of a student’s progress toward a degree?

Our office – the Veterans & Military Services – is the one that verifies that the classes a student enrolls in count towards their degree. And then we submit that information to the VA and the VA pays for those classes.

We do get audited each year. Representatives of the VA come in and they pick a handful of students, and they will just double check all records to make sure that those classes count towards their major. And if not, the student has to pay back for them.

The Veteran Student Lounge in the office of Veteran & Nontraditional Student Services combines space for productivity and socializing. An entertainment center is flanked by high-top tables and computer stations. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Aside from the VA benefits, what is your office doing to support students?

We have a veterans lounge space. We also have a student organization for veterans; it’s not active right now, but it is something that we offer. We do peer-to-peer calling where students call other students asking, for example, how the semester is going, whether they have any questions about using their benefits and so on.

We can’t control the VA side of things, but we can make it as smooth as possible on the UND side.

We encourage students to let our office know if they are struggling with a class. We can put them in contact with other resources the campus has, whether it’s tutoring or counseling services. We can provide different resources both on campus and around the city to support military students.

We email students about once a month with any changes, any updates, any deadlines that they need to know about. We keep them informed about any new scholarships that the VA may offer, because sometimes that happens. We also let them know about the different events that we host.

 For further information visit the Veterans & Military Services office.