Bellevue University Vice President Mike Echols asks the company executives that he meets a seemingly simple question:
How much of your workforce served in the military?
The answer: Often a blank stare. A shrug of the shoulders. An admission from the executive that he or she has no idea.
That question — and the regular lack of an answer — rests at the heart of a new Bellevue program to nudge both employers and the military veterans who work for them to use the college tuition benefit they've earned through their service.
The program, called Veterans Initiative for Advancement, looks like good business for Bellevue. If all goes as planned, more service members and veterans, who already make up a tenth of the school's enrollment, will take classes at the private, largely online university.
But the program also is a good idea, said Echols, who runs Bellevue's Strategic Initiatives Division. It's meant to address the persistent unemployment and underemployment of veterans, a problem that first lady Michelle Obama and others have highlighted as hundreds of thousands of American troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And it's meant to deal directly with this startling fact: Only 36 percent of American veterans use the GI Bill's educational benefits, which include free tuition.
“It will grow enrollment,” Echols said of the Veterans Initiative for Advancement. “But it's also the right thing to do for these veterans.”
The program, led by Echols, starts in earnest next year when the university partners with midsize and large companies around the country.
At first, the initiative will simply educate those companies' executives about what the GI Bill offers and why it would be smart for their employees who served in the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard to take advantage of the benefits.
The simple reason: The money is there for the taking.
Companies often pay for employees to take college courses or other training that can help in the workplace. Echols is well acquainted with these programs because Bellevue already works with 65 corporations, including Home Depot and Verizon, on general educational strategies.
But what if a company could help an employee advance their education and it wouldn't cost the company a dime?
“You don't even have to ask the executives to put money in the pot with this one,” Echols said. “When they know that, it becomes an easier conversation.”
Then the goal becomes identifying employees who served in the military, a trickier proposition than it sounds because executives and even immediate supervisors often have no idea that John Q. Worker pulled two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Once veterans voluntarily identify themselves — likely prompted by emails from the boss introducing the new vets-only program — then the one-on-one conversations can start.
Studies show that veterans often leave GI Bill benefits on the table because they don't see a clear line between more education and a promotion. Additionally, they often don't want the headache of fighting through what they fear will be bureaucratic red tape for their benefits.
Bellevue student Keith Thomas, an active-duty noncommissioned officer in the Air Force, said he delayed going to college for a decade, mostly because he feared that using the GI Bill would be a hassle.
Several of his friends who recently left the military also hemmed and hawed, sometimes worried that employers would say no if they asked for a flexible schedule to attend college full-time. A lot of vets have families to feed, Thomas said.
These barriers to using the GI Bill sometimes block veterans from getting good jobs, research indicates.
For example, a 2011 report from jobs website Monster.com showed that while more than half of American job openings required a bachelor's degree, only 21 percent of veterans had earned such a degree.
Instead, almost half of veterans hold an associate's degree or have finished some college without a degree to show for it.
“It is apparent that veterans need additional training and education in order to be strong candidates for available roles,” Monster's report says.
Echols said Bellevue can help by smoothing the process to sign up for the benefits — helping a veteran fill out forms, offering more online and night courses, and lowering the barriers, real and psychological, that prevent vets from getting degrees.
Echols expects dozens of companies to sign on to the new Veterans Initiative for Advancement in the coming year and “a lot” of vets to sign on and take classes at Bellevue.
“It looks like a no-brainer,” to use the GI Bill, Echols said. “But clearly there are impediments here causing 64 percent of the people who have access to this resource to not use it.”
Thomas, the Air Force noncommissioned officer, said taking classes feels like a no-brainer — after the fact.
Now he's hopeful that service members and veterans make the same decision, with the help of programs like Bellevue's new vets initiative.
“Going to school is seen as a pain in the butt,” Thomas said. “But now I tell all my friends and family that if I'd known how easy it was to access the benefits and get spun back up to go to school ... I would've done it a decade ago.”
What's in the GI Bill?
Tuition: Veterans eligible for the post-Sept. 11 GI Bill can get all tuition and fees paid if they attend an in-state public college or university. Many out-of-state colleges allow military veterans to attend and pay the in-state tuition rate, which lets them attend for free. Veterans attending a private or foreign school can receive up to $18,077 per academic year.
Housing: Veterans attending college in the Omaha area can get a monthly housing allowance of $1,086. The monthly housing allowance varies from city to city based on housing prices.
Books: Veterans can receive up to $1,000 annually for books. The book payment is based on the number of classes the veteran is taking.
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