Advertised as military-friendly and offering a variety of services to members of the armed forces, Colorado State University-Pueblo has a relatively small population of military students, under 7 percent, enrolled in classes, including veterans, active duty and their families.
There’s just more than 300 veteran students at CSU-Pueblo out of total student population of 4,528.
The main campus in Pueblo boasts a recently activated chapter of the Student Veterans of America, a new campus American Legion Post, a Veterans’ Upward Bound program, a resource center equipped with computers, study areas, and places to relax, as well as a Veteran’s Educational Benefits office to help military affiliated students get the most from their VA benefits.
The Fort Carson and Tower campuses in Colorado Springs offer evening classes and on site help for veterans and active duty who want to explore their options. With all this to offer and strategic locations near several military installations, it’s surprising that CSU-Pueblo isn’t brimming with military students.
Veterans Paul Hendrickson and Craig Staley both came to CSU-Pueblo several years ago expecting to see a well-organized military support system. The university held the desired “military-friendly” status, and being so close to Fort Carson, it should have had all the necessary elements.
Unfortunately, what they found fell short of their expectations.
“(Craig) and I were kind of in awe as to why we didn’t have the services on campus that we needed. Vets go through a lot more than the typical student,” Hendrickson said. “We don’t rely on mom and dad to write the check on time. We have to rely on an office to submit our stuff on time and make sure it gets sent.”
“The guys down there now, they do a good job. Before, they had an issue. Stuff wouldn’t get submitted, classes weren’t paid for, students had to drop or disenroll.”
One problem that Hendrickson and Staley witnessed involved several military students who were charged out-of-state tuition. The VA only covers in-state tuition, and the nationwide GI Promise program is supposed to guarantee in-state tuition. When these students needed help, they had to wait months to have their issues resolved.
That’s when Hendrickson said he and Staley decided to step in. They went to admissions and got the office to correct the problem, backdating the in-state tuition to comply with federal law.
Eventually, Hendrickson and Staley decided the best way to help their fellow military students was to form an official chapter of the Student Veterans of America at CSU-Pueblo. Though there was a veteran and military support club on campus at one point, it did not have the global support of a professional organization such as the SVA.
The SVA is a nonprofit coalition of veteran’s groups that, according to their website, are the “boots on the ground” that help veterans and other military affiliated students reintegrate into campus life and succeed academically.
Hendrickson feels the new chapter will make a dramatic difference for military students at CSU-Pueblo.
“We know our stuff, we do our research. We follow through with the veterans, and we advocate,” he said. “We become that buffer between the veteran and the school. We’re not afraid to make people upset.”
“Craig and I have talked to a lot of different faculty members, and we’re really trying to make sure that the military-friendly school aspect of it is done in such a way that makes it easy for the vet to enroll. And also to have someone who advocates on their behalf, because in the military, that’s how it’s done.”
Hendrickson still believes the number of military students at CSU-Pueblo is well below where it should be.
“We’re making an assumption that there is obviously an issue, and we’ve already experienced some of the issues,” he said. “Maybe they don’t know we’re here, and maybe they’re saying, ‘I’ll just go to UCCS (the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs), because their SVA is squared away.’ We don’t know.”
UCCS saw an 86 percent increase of veteran students from 2008 to 2012, according to a 2013 Veteran and Military Student Services Report. 1,285 of the 9,777 enrolled students at UCCS in 2012 were veterans — 13 percent.
Hendrickson and Staley both agree that because of Pueblo’s cost of living and location, the city is becoming a southern extension of Fort Carson, and with the other locations in Colorado Springs, CSU-Pueblo should be a destination school for the military.
Jon Ullman, retired Air Force officer and former program manager for the CSU-Pueblo Tower location in Colorado Springs, agrees that CSU-Pueblo is in a prime position to attract military students on a large scale.
“It’s not a cost to the university, it’s an opportunity that’s been under-appreciated,” he explained. “There’s no other university that straddles a major installation like (CSU-Pueblo) does. With the main campus in Pueblo, the Tower location on the north end of post and our Fort Carson office, we have a unique opportunity to serve veterans. We just need to put that into practice.”
While many improvements have been implemented through veterans’ affairs on campus, attracting a greater military population will require the development of new programs and policy changes, and will extend beyond the generic “military-friendly” designation the school already has.
Ullman believes the university’s strategic plan should specifically address the military and its needs which include flexibility, online programs that can be taken from any location, and a guarantee that if students run into circumstances that are beyond their control due to their military service, they will be taken care of.
“We need to give veterans confidence that, when something happens like a move, a deployment or a government budget freeze, that there is some sort of accommodation for them. I don’t doubt that CSU-Pueblo appreciates veterans. I don’t doubt that we recognize their service and their potential to the university. I just don’t think we have the mechanisms and processes in place to turn the recognition into actual enrollment numbers and happy veterans,” he said.
Laura Barela, director of veteran’s affairs at CSU-Pueblo, and her team at the Veterans’ Resource Center are working to address many of the issues facing CSU-Pueblo and its military population. According to Barela, the university has come a long way in the last few years and is well on its way to justifying its military-friendly status.
“I think there’s always room for improvement. No matter if you get that designation and keep it for years, you have to look at what your best practices are, and you have to see if the services you are providing are really helping the veterans,” she said. “In the last few years we’ve implemented a lot of things to become more military-friendly. Some of those things include a more streamlined process to make it easier for students, orientations specifically for military, and we are providing faculty and staff trainings.”
Barela said the VRC is working to become “a one-stop shop” for potential students. When a new student indicates that they are a veteran, they are partnered with a veteran ambassador who will give them a tour, go over benefits information and resources on campus, and connect them with other veterans in the community.
Because of these improvements, Barela expects a more positive experience for veterans in the future and an increase in the number of military students enrolled at CSU-Pueblo.
According to Ullman though, the lack of online programs and flexibility for veterans will still cause the university to miss the mark in its efforts to be a destination school for military students.
“When I look at CSU-Pueblo and its strengths and its positioning, and where it sits with Fort Carson, I only see opportunity,” he said. “What the university lacks is an understanding of what vets want, and direction on how it can achieve that and take advantage of that opportunity. “
“Maybe they don’t know we’re here, and maybe they’re saying, ‘I’ll just go to UCCS, because their ‘Student Veterans Association’ is squared away.’ We don’t know.” – Paul Hendrickson, veteran at CSU-Pueblo
“I think it’s uniquely positioned for it. There’s no reason that the government should be sending thousands and thousands of college-age students here and giving those soldiers money to pursue an education, and the university is sitting right here, and doesn’t recognize that as an opportunity. The schools that have realized that and are providing what vets want are reaping the benefits, and that should be CSU-Pueblo.”
Barela believes CSU-Pueblo is on the right track to reap those benefits.
“This year, CSU-Pueblo more than doubled the number of first-year students using veterans’ educational benefits from 30 to 80 students, bringing the total number of veterans to more than 300,” she said. “This is exciting for the university, and it is evident that military families are confident in CSU-Pueblo’s ability to meet their educational needs. The university takes pride in effectively serving its military students, and it intends to continue its role as one of the nation’s most military friendly institutions.”