Mount Wachusett Community College, No. 1 on our list, is a public two-year school in North Central Massuchetts. The wind turbines provide power for the colleges, known for its natural resources and energy management programs. (Courtesy of Mount Wachusett Community College)
Community colleges face unique challenges among institutions of higher learning.
They provide technical training and are often first on the line when a new industry comes to town and needs specialized workers quickly. They also focus on general education, preparing students to receive bachelor's degrees at four-year schools. Despite obstacles, these schools dominated our first-ever review of the best career and technical colleges for veterans.
Public community and technical schools accounted for six of the top 10, with Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts taking the top spot.
For Mount Wachusett, catering to veterans and active-duty service members is "woven into the fabric of this college," said Kristine Larkin, assistant director of the school's Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success, one of 15 such centers in the country paid for by Education Department grants. "This college has a reputation for serving veterans — even in the 1970s, when it wasn't cool. This is a way of giving back," Larkin said.
ECPI University, Stevens-Henager College and Virginia College ranked as the top private schools. All are for-profit institutions. Some such schools have faced tough questions in recent years about their quality of education and handling of veterans' education benefits.
But Mike Betz, general manager for military student initiatives at Education Corporation of America — parent company of Virginia College, Ecotech Institute and the Golf Academy of America, among others — said veterans rely heavily on each other for advice when it comes to choosing a college, meaning schools that perform well are rewarded with more students while bad actors eventually see their enrollments fall. The company was not one of those looked at in Sen. Tom Harkin's highly publicized investigation into 30 for-profit education providers unveiled this summer.
Most of the service members who attend schools within Betz's company enrolled thanks to word of mouth, he said, not elaborate advertisements.
"If you take good care of our veterans, word will get out," Betz said. "We've made a commitment — we've made a serious investment in our military support services."
Betz said that as career and technical institutions, his company's schools have a different goal from that of big, traditional state colleges. "It's not just the attainment of a higher degree. It's the attainment of a vocational skill set related to an occupation."
Military Times EDGE considered some 140 schools in the review. Colleges participating in our annual survey self-identified as career and technical schools. We'll review more colleges and universities in the November issue.
The nearly 150-question survey asked about support services, academic policies and financial aid beneficial to student veterans.
Answers indicated that schools as a whole have room for improvement. More than half said they have no veterans office on campus, and nearly six in 10 said faculty and staff do not receive training to handle the unique issues veterans face in the classroom and the financial aid office.
There were positive signs for service members, as well. For example, more than 70 percent of schools indicated that they accept American Council on Education credits, which convert military training into academic hours.
A similar proportion of schools said they offer online education programs, which can be crucial for troops taking classes on active duty.
"We do have a distance-learning program so we can reach out to active-duty military who are abroad," said Elise Davis-McFarland, vice president for student services at Trident Technical College. "We have service people in Afghanistan who are enrolled in our programs."
Many of the community colleges recorded graduation rates that could raise concerns among prospective students.
But Mount Wachusett's Larkin said that unlike many four-year schools, two-year colleges are not focused primarily on graduating students.
People can leave her school without an associate degree — bringing down the graduation rate — but still be success stories if they're departing for good jobs or to continue their studies at a university.
That said, Larkin doesn't view Mount Wachusett's top finish as a sign that the school and its veteran support systems can stand pat.
"It's great that we're being recognized, but it's a continuous, daily effort," she said. "It's a work in progress. It's never going to be perfect … [but] we're sure as heck going to do the best we can to try."