Posted: April 1, 2015 at 10:50 pm
by Kevin Hooker, Joe Lipovich and Kiley Putnam
The clock strikes 4 am and Christopher Morris is still tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Morris, a veteran now enrolled at West Virginia University, hasn’t slept in six days. In bed at night, he is haunted by recurring flashbacks from his tours in Afghanistan, images of combat and burying good friends.
Morris knows he suffers from post-traumatic stress. “I can’t sleep,” he says simply.
Morris is among many veterans at WVU who face major hurdles when it comes to acclimating to campus life. Of the 700 veterans now enrolled on campus, only 90 of them (13 percent) are expected to graduate. The graduation rate for other students is around 60 percent. Campus officials attribute this low percentage of graduation to a number of issues, including the difficulty many veterans have re-acclimating to civilian life and the university’s unwillingness to provide veterans with the course registration flexibility they need.
“The hardest thing for veterans is re-acclimating to society,” says Jerry McCarthy, the director of Veteran Affairs. “You go from being in a family of people whom you live with, serve with, and do everything with to being out on your own.”
In July 2008, a new GI Bill was signed into law, creating an education benefits program for service members who served on active duty for 90 or more days after September 10, 2001.
Included in those benefits was priority registration for veteran students, allowing them to register for courses earlier than other students do. Although the 2008 law applies to every school in West Virginia, the fine print also stipulates that universities only have to implement priority registration “when appropriate.”
WVU has decided that it’s not appropriate for veterans to have priority registration over other students, according to Jason Keffer, the President of the WVU Veterans Club and an Air Force veteran himself.
“The university claims that if they give priority registration to [the veterans], they’ll have to give it to everyone,” Keffer said. “I find that ridiculous.”
Keffer notes that WVU athletes get priority registration, so veterans should as well. “WVU claims athletes have NCAA compliance rules,” he says. “Well, we as veterans also have compliance rules.”
As a result of this decision, veterans are sometimes put in difficult positions. Under the Veterans Administration (VA) policy, veteran students have just two semesters to declare a major and enroll in a specific college, compared to other college students who have a maximum of four semesters.
But veterans lose their benefits after two semesters if they haven’t declared a major and any additional classes needed have to be paid out of their own pocket. Since it’s paying for veterans’ tuition, the VA does this to give veterans an increased incentive to choose a major promptly and get through school as quickly as possible.
During his sophomore year, Keffer says, he needed to enroll in one more class to be considered a full time student (four classes for 12 credits). But the class he needed was at maximum capacity.
“I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a class opened up and I immediately jumped into it,” says Keffer, a criminology major. “But if it didn’t open and I had taken a class outside of my major, the VA would have said no—we’re not paying for that class because you’re not [a] full time [student]. We as veterans can’t really afford to pay for classes ourselves.”
Other veteran students haven’t been as lucky. Keffer says that most of them drop out due to frustrations with the system.
“It’s a mad scramble,” Keffer said. “Students often think, ‘Do I drop out? Should I transfer to Fairmont State University, a school that does offer priority registration?’”
Keffer says he has reached out to WVU administration “countless” times in an effort to change the system. However, every time he schedules a meeting, he says it gets canceled unexpectedly at the last minute.
University officials say they are sensitive to veterans’ needs and try to accommodate them whenever possible.
“The size of WVU makes it extremely challenging to provide priority registrations to all veterans,” says McCarthy. “Fairmont State may be able to do things that WVU cannot when it comes to priority registration because it is a smaller school.”
Although McCarthy says that he thinks WVU does what it can to help veterans, he says that there is always room for improvement. Keffer agrees.
“I think West Virginia can do a lot better,” Keffer said. “WVU was leading the way for veterans less than five years ago, [but] they’ve fallen behind other schools in the state, like Shepard and Fairmont State.”