When it comes to celebrating those that protect our country, it is important to remember that we can continue to support these individuals far beyond Veteran’s Day. There is perhaps no better way to raise up our veterans than providing the opportunity to pursue personal, professional, and career advancement as part of the civilian world. While our veterans and active service members bring a specific skill set to higher education, they also face a number of unique obstacles to their success. Based on their life experience, veterans and active duty students represent a valuable resource on their campus as leaders and role models. According to The American Freshman Study (2016) conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, students with current or past military experience are more likely to value leadership and to actively participate in the betterment of their community.
However, these students are often inadequately supported at higher education institutions with services and resources designed only with the “traditional” student in mind. Research done by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2015 found a great incongruity between the level of services offered and received by students on the GI Bill and their peers, but this disparity is certainly not due to a lack of need. Compared to their civilian peers, service members and veterans in higher education exhibited disproportionately higher rates of health risk behaviors, psychological symptoms, and adjustment difficulties (including the inability to connect with peers and faculty). The American Freshman Study in 2016 found these military-affiliated students recognize their own vulnerability and rate themselves lower than their peers on their own mental and physical health.
One area where students with military history are particularly susceptible to risk behaviors relates to the abuse of alcohol and other substances Research has shown they experience a nearly twofold increase in the odds of having a police encounter or other negative consequence as a result of intoxication compared to their civilian peers. Part of this can be explained by the disproportionate risk for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences that accompany young adults who have experienced trauma or post-traumatic stress, but these negative outcomes can also be partially due to the culture of drinking in the military and perceptions of social norms these students hold. While veteran and active duty students did drink more than their civilian peers, their perceptions of consumption rates among other military students actually surpassed actual drinking rates.
Data from thousands of military and civilian students collected through our AlcoholEdu for College course echoes these findings. While there were no statistically significant differences in self-reported drinking rates among these student groups, veteran, and active duty respondents were MUCH more likely to have experienced negative consequences as a result of consumption. In fact, students with military history were 5 times more likely to report dangerous outcomes such as: driving under the influence, getting into a physical altercation, injuring themselves, and experiencing negative academic consequences. These students were also less likely to report engaging in protective behaviors when they drank compared their peers, like using a designated driver, alternating alcoholic drinks with water, pacing themselves, or making sure to eat before consumption.
These findings underscore the need for campuses to allocate sufficient resources to meet the health and wellness needs of their community, particularly their military-affiliated students. Administrators and prevention practitioners are encouraged to meet this challenge of becoming “veteran-focused” by putting in place personnel, policies, resources, and programs that reflect the needs of veterans. There is a dire need to share best practices, exchange ideas, and to conduct research that will provide campuses with the information necessary to promote the academic achievement of military-affiliated students in higher education.
Supporting our military service members must encompass an actionable plan to shift perceptions of behavioral norms, increase engagement on campus, and reduce high-risk drinking patterns. It cannot just be a happy slogan.