More military-affiliated students – including veterans, active duty, reserve and active National Guard members and military family members – are enrolling in higher education locally.
In the spring 2016 semester, 2,339 military-affiliated students attended Western Kentucky University, which Tonya Archey, director of military student services, said is more than the total at any other public four-year university in Kentucky. Since 2011, the university’s military population has grown by 13 to 19 percent each year, according to the WKU website.
Growth in the military student body at WKU can be traced to the services and benefits the school offers for students who are or have been in the armed forces, according to Kent Johnson, military student services assistant.
“It is in large part because of the programs we offer here, some of which are unique to WKU,” he said.
Among them is a discounted tuition rate for students currently serving active duty or in the National Guard or National Guard Reserves, he said.
Each credit hour for anyone eligible for the discounted rate costs $250, well below the $413 per credit hour traditional resident students are charged, Johnson said. With this discount, a standard three-hour course would cost $750 rather than $1,239.
The school’s organizational leadership major has proven particularly enticing for students still in the military, Johnson said, adding that it was the university’s “biggest draw” for members of the military. Students can pursue bachelor’s or master’s degrees in organizational leadership, he said.
The program is flexible and can be taken entirely online, which is helpful for veterans with jobs or students whose military schedules or other other obligations might not always allow face-to-face instruction, Johnson said.
“It’s popular because it’s distance learner-friendly,” he said.
Textbooks for Troops, a program unique to WKU, has also been a draw for military-affiliated students, Johnson said. The program provides eligible military personnel, their family members and veterans with books they need for their classes. According to WKU News, Textbooks for Troops is funded through private donations of both monetary funds and books and is the largest program of its kind in the nation.
Johnson said Textbooks for Troops can be especially crucial because it is among the only aids many veterans and military personnel are eligible for.
“A lot of it has to do with many of the scholarships being for first-time freshmen,” he said.
Kelsey McArthur, a senior majoring in health science set to graduate in December, said via email she wouldn’t be able to attend school if not for the benefits she receives for her nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. Currently, McArthur’s school is paid for by the Montgomery GI Bill while a scholarship she gets for participating in the campus’ ROTC program pays for her books.
Before getting her ROTC scholarship, though, she used Textbooks for Troops, which was helpful and convenient, she said.
“I would send them a list of my classes, they would find my books for me, pay for them and all I did was pick them up and then drop them back off at the end of the semester!” she said.
She was a college student before joining the Army but found she couldn’t afford it.
“Before enlisting I went to another school and could not afford to go, even ... scholarships and (financial aid) would not cover all my tuition and costs,” she said, adding that the main reason she joined the Army was so that she could pay for school.
Johnson said the the school also has a Veterans Resource Center with four computers, a printer and a study space and a chapter of the Student Veterans Alliance, where veterans can gather for support, he said.
Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College, while it doesn’t have quite as wide an array of services and benefits for military-affiliated students, is also committed to meeting the needs of enrolled veterans and active military personnel, according to Mark Brooks, director of public relations.
If approached by a veteran trying to figure out where to go to school, SKyCTC will recommend them to WKU’s Veterans Upward Bound program, he said, adding the school will also help them apply for benefits, he said.
Like WKU, SKyCTC hosts a chapter of the Student Veterans Alliance, Brooks said.
“It kind of acts as a support system. It’s a place for veterans to meet and gain support,” he said.
“I consider our school to be a veteran-friendly school and we try to assist the veterans anywhere we can.”
For help in getting started in school, there is a chapter of Veterans Upward Bound, a program designed to motivate veterans to attend school and help them enroll, in Bowling Green.
WKU is also home to the only Veterans Upward Bound program in the state, Johnson said.
The program is often a big help for veterans and active military planning to go back to school because it helps prepare them through the admissions process and offers refresher courses before their classes start, he said.
Rick Wright, coordinator of WKU’s Upward Bound, said the program helps qualifying prospective students figure out where to go to school, fill out applications and find scholarships they’re eligible for.
“We try to walk them through the admissions process step by step and try to make that as painless as possible for them,” he said.
There is a common misconception that his office’s services are only available to military students planning to attend WKU, Wright said.
“That’s not true,” he said. “We can help veterans get into any school they want to go to in the country.”
Of all the veterans and military personnel that come to his Upward Bound office, 60 percent go to WKU, 30 percent go to SKyCTC and much of the remaining 10 percent enroll in out-of-state institutions, Wright said, adding that many military students are nontraditional students with spouses or families they don’t want to uproot.
“These students want to stay close to home,” he said.
To attract potential military students, Upward Bound partners with numerous local organizations, like the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and others that might be able to refer veterans interested in going to school to Upward Bound, Wright said.
“We’ve tried to reach out to anybody and everybody that deals regularly with veterans,” he said.
According to Johnson, Upward Bound has drawn many students to WKU and made it possible for them to get started in college.
“That’s how I came to Western,” he said. “It’s an excellent way to get started.”
Though Johnson is expecting to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs and another in Arabic, he’s not always been so determined to get an education.
After high school, Johnson enlisted in the military because he didn’t want to go to college, he said. While serving in the Marines, though, he decided he wanted to go to school.
After leaving the military, Johnson settled in Bowling Green and found that the process of applying for college wasn’t easy, he said.
“It was difficult to get into school, plus I felt like I was doing it all on my own,” he said.
After seeing a flier for Upward Bound and trying the service out, Johnson found himself on his way to his degrees.
“They gave me the confidence that I needed to go to school,” he said.
The fact that Johnson and military student services director Tonya Archey, who was once in the Navy, are veterans has also strengthened the program because veterans seeking to go to college will know that people who are familiar with their struggle are there to help, Johnson said.
“We understand them, we connect with them and we’ve been in their shoes,” he said.
— Follow Daily News reporter Jackson French on Twitter @Jackson_French or visit bgdailynews.com.