I was fortunate to attend the Student Veterans of America annual conference, held here in Las Vegas, last month and hear Gen. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, speak as the keynote. His speech was insightful and encouraging. It was a challenge to SVA, and each of its 500 chapters, to step up and own the responsibility for excellence in our education and in our future endeavors.
Sixty-seven years ago, there was an original GI Bill that educated and trained nearly 8 million of the 16 million Veterans who fought and won World War II. That educational opportunity lasted from 1944-1956—just 12 years. The Veteran leadership that graduated under that program went on to catapult the U.S. economy to world’s largest and our nation to leader of the free world and victor in the Cold War.
Today, over 410,000 Veterans and family members, like yourselves, are enrolled in college under the new 9/11 GI Bill. Adding in all our other Veteran college programs brings that number up to over 920,000.
Each year almost 70% of high school seniors in this country enter college. Many of them don’t complete the first semester, let alone the first year. The graduation rate for all students entering 4-year colleges and universities in the United States is 57%. Remember, I am trying to isolate what we know from what we don’t know. Left to seek its own level, do we think that your graduation rates will be any better than the historic norm? I don’t know, and neither do you.
If you think this country owes you an education, you have an attitude problem. They didn’t do this for any generation since World War II—until yours.
If, on the other hand, you think you owe the American people and great folks like Bill and Melinda Gates and the VSOs, who have given you wings, your best performance academically, I think we’ll all come out much better—Veterans, SVA, and the country. More Veterans will graduate; SVA will be acknowledged as the force behind that. Veterans, collectively, will have embraced ownership and responsibility for their education. And one thing I know about this generation is that, if you own something, you deliver.
You see, that’s what happened on all those tough missions you took on—you took ownership, you got it done, you took care of one another, and you reset yourselves each day for the next go. So does SVA own the mission of shepherding this generation of Veterans through this educational experience, at a time when the country needs strong, bold, decisive, disciplined, and principled leadership to jumpstart its lagging economy? A country that is investing in your skills, knowledge, and attributes? Does SVA own this?
This year we expanded the new 9/11 GI Bill to provide vocational training and other non-degree programs to broaden the opportunity for Veterans who may not want to spend four years in a college classroom. If they want work skills that allow them to join the workforce today, that is now also available to them, as it was for Veterans under the original GI Bill. So who has the mission of organizing the students in this training effort? Do they fit into SVA’s structure?
Now, if the new 9/11 GI Bill follows the track of the original GI Bill, we could be more than two years into a 12-year opportunity. Hence, my earlier question, where does SVA think it will be in 10 years? Do you have momentum to produce, as the World War II generation did, or were they truly a unique, one-of-a-kind “greatest generation”?
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The United States has a long list of challenges, but our returning veterans are one of the great assets we will be able to leverage as we retool for the 21st century. Those veterans who are also college students stand poised at the tip of the spear of all these great possibilities. The challenge, of course, will be for you to step up, work hard, and excel. If you are motivated and seek support, there is just nothing you can’t do. If the Rebel VETS program can help or guide you to resources to help you improve, to be more excellent, please let us know what you need.