U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki can speak personally about the benefits of expanding higher education opportunities for military veterans.
Shinseki — a former four-star Army general who earned a graduate degree at Duke University after retiring from active duty — said people who have served their country bring unique perspectives to university classrooms.
“I’m hearkening back to my experience,” he said while on a visit to Chapel Hill Tuesday.
“(Veteran students) are not much older in age, but there’s a maturity that comes with what they’ve been asked to do — and do so well.”
Shinseki discussed the state’s efforts to serve student veterans with UNC-system President Tom Ross and university chancellors.
North Carolina ranks in the top five nationally for active duty, guard and reserve populations — and troop withdrawals in recent years have led to higher veteran university enrollment.
Ross said the UNC system is committed to becoming more military-friendly.
Enhancing support networks for veterans and their families on every campus and improving access to online resources are both goals of UNC’s strategic plan, Ross said.
He said the General Administration has established an office at Fort Bragg to help service members apply for and transition to college, and it plans to do the same at Camp Lejeune.
“We have — and expect even more — people leaving active duty in North Carolina,” he said. “We want to be available to them.”
Shinseki said his meeting with UNC-system leaders was the first university-wide — rather than campus-specifc — presentation he had attended on higher education access for veterans.
Each system school offers different degree programs that target veterans, Ross said.
“The uniqueness of our campuses is really around the programmatic opportunities that are available.”
Shinseki helped spur the passing of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which helps pay tuition and fees for eligible veterans enrolled at colleges and universities nationwide.
He said since 2009, the bill has already helped nearly one million service members go to school.
“(Educated veterans) will return every dollar invested in them,” he said.
UNC-CH is one of several system schools that provides additional financial support for veterans through the Yellow Ribbon program.
But Ross acknowledged the price of a UNC education — particularly for out-of-state veterans — can be steep.
He said UNC leaders are working with legislators to exempt veterans from out-of-state tuition.
The N.C. House of Representatives included a provision in its budget proposal to begin funding an in-state tuition model for veterans.
“It’s a barrier for us,” Ross said. “We still need to work with the (N.C.) House and Senate on language to allow us to make that exception.”
Pete Tillman, public affairs officer at Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said Shinseki’s visit shows the system is making strides in enrolling and graduating veterans.
“It was a good opportunity for VA leadership and UNC leadership to exchange ideas and how to build upon them,” he said.
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