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Duke's Fastest Growing Student Group

Two federal programs lead to 451 percent increase in military veterans enrolled as students

Part of the Duke for America Series
Will Fisher has made the transition from military service to Duke Divinity School with the help of federal programs.  Photo by Les Todd.
Will Fisher has made the transition from military service to Duke Divinity School with the help of federal programs. Photo by Les Todd.

After two tours of duty in Iraq, Will Fisher left the Army in 2010 wanting to do something with his life to help his fellow veterans. With financial support from the Veterans Administration, he enrolled in Duke Divinity School, where he is now about to start his second year. Once he graduates, he hopes to work as a chaplain at a VA hospital or a prison.

"There has never been a point in American history where such a small percentage of our citizens have served in the military," says Fisher, 32. "Professionally and spiritually, I want to serve other combat veterans that civilians may have trouble relating to. The burden of indefinite war is being carried by fewer and fewer of us."

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Fisher is part of a growing trend at Duke and elsewhere. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, increasing numbers of veterans are taking advantage of generous VA educational benefits to enroll in schools across the country. The VA's Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the cost of tuition and fees at a public university.

Funds from the GI Bill can also be used toward a private education. Some private universities, including Duke, participate in the VA's related Yellow Ribbon Program, through which the school and the VA share the cost difference between public and private universities.

At Duke, the number of undergraduate, graduate and professional students receiving VA education benefits has increased by 451 percent in the last four years -- from 35 in 2009 to 158 today. The large majority (122) of those scheduled to be enrolled at Duke in the fall are veterans, while the remainder (36) are dependents of veterans.

"We did this primarily out of a sense of national responsibility and service," says Provost Peter Lange, the university's chief academic officer. "We also recognized the diversity it would add to our student body across the schools, with the skills and maturity such students would likely bring."

Graduate or professional students account for most of those receiving VA benefits at Duke. They include 47 students at the Fuqua School of Business, 29 at the School of Nursing, 16 in the Graduate School and 14 at the Divinity School.  

Bruce Cunningham, Duke's assistant vice provost and university registrar, says the increase in the number of veterans is the result of two things. The new GI Bill has made a lot more vets eligible for educational benefits, and the Yellow Ribbon program, begun in 2008, has made private schools more accessible for them.

"This program is especially significant because it makes the higher tuition rates at places like Duke more doable for vets," Cunningham says. "In the past, the GI Bill benefits really didn't come very close to meeting the cost of attendance. Now, between the increased GI Bill benefits and Duke's portion of the Yellow Ribbon grants, along with the VA's match of those grants, vets can attend Duke at a very reasonable cost."

Cunningham says Duke has been "very generous in our Yellow Ribbon offerings and they have been increased every year of the program. We've participated fully every year of the program. All of our schools participate in Yellow Ribbon; I'm not sure if that is the case for all institutions. I really think the Yellow Ribbon is the key to our growth in vets attending."

Some student-veterans credit Duke for its efforts and hope the university will do even more, such as by creating a special gathering place for veterans and having a staff member at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) specifically trained to deal with veterans and their mental health issues.

Larry Moneta, the vice president for student affairs, says Duke has taken several steps to serve its growing number of veterans. His office has created and maintains a website that outlines the various resources now available on campus for veterans.

Moneta says it is unlikely that Duke would build a center for veterans in the near future but is continuing to expand its services in other ways, such as by providing extensive training for all CAPS members on how best to help veterans with mental and emotional issues.

Faculty and staff will have the opportunity to receive training this summer from the VA about resources available for veterans, says associate dean of students Clay Adams. This will be followed by a related open house for the Duke students looking to better understand their benefits.

In addition, Duke will be sending a welcome message this summer to all new student-veterans from Phail Wynn, the university's vice president of Durham and regional affairs and a Vietnam veteran himself.

Student Affairs is also considering ways to establish informal opportunities for faculty and staff -- veterans and non-veterans alike -- to mentor student-veterans.

"We have not moved on that yet, but we are looking at ways to be a supportive community," Adams says.

Jonny Havens, who graduated from Duke Law School in May, says he felt welcomed at Duke. He participated in the law school's Veterans Disabilities Assistance Project, which helps veterans receive the disability benefits they deserve. He hopes to continue doing pro bono work on behalf of veterans once he starts working at a Houston law firm in September.

"I have zero regrets," he says of his time at Duke. "It was a pretty cool experience and I got to work with people of many stripes."