There may not be a big-eared mouse or giant castle on the campus of Tarrant County College in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, but the faculty and staff want students to feel like they’re at Disney World.

For Assistant Director of Student Development Services Eddie Brassart, that means “walking the talk” and providing “aggressively” friendly customer service — tips he picked up from the 1997 book “Inside the Magic Kingdom” that’s required reading for all new hires at the school’s Trinity River Campus.

If you ask Army veteran Sharon Dancer, a first-year student at the college, she’ll tell you without hesitation there are similarities between her school and the happiest place on earth. Staff at the veterans center constantly seek her out to ask what they can do for her, she said.

“If you’ve ever been to Disney World and just looked at all the people, they’re just all happy. I mean, everything is at peace,” she said. “I have got that feel.”

The pixie dust seems to be working. In our latest annual ranking of the best colleges for veteran, active-duty and military dependent students, Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus ranked near the top of its category of two-year schools.

The Military Times Best: Colleges 2018 list, formerly known as Best for Vets: Colleges, included 218 colleges that submitted an exhaustive, 150-question survey to be considered for our annual rankings.

The Rankings

The rankings were more competitive than ever this year, as a record number of schools participated in our annual survey, and less than half made the cut. We evaluated colleges based on their survey responses and also used data from the federal Education, Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to determine how schools stacked up across five categories: university culture, academic quality and outcomes, policies, student support, and cost and financial aid.

D’Youville College, University of South Florida and Armstrong State University ranked the three highest among four-year schools. Central Community College-Nebraska and Northwestern Michigan College also topped the list of two-year institutions.

Among online and nontraditional schools, the University of Maryland University College, Liberty University and Central Texas Colleges made up the top three. Savannah Technical College, ECPI University and Fayetteville Technical Community College were ranked the best career and technical colleges.

The majority of schools that responded to the survey — 67 percent — were public. A little over 23 percent were private nonprofit universities, and 7 percent were for-profit institutions. Eighty percent of the schools on the list are public, 17 percent are private and 3 percent are for-profit.

Growing, graduating military students

Of schools that said they tracked graduation rates for students with military ties, 58 percent reported rates that were higher than or equal to the graduation rate for their overall student population.

The average graduation rate for military students was 49 percent, according to information recorded in the surveys, compared to a 44 percent average overall graduation rate at these schools, based on Department of Education data.

Many schools also did a better job retaining military-connected students. At D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York, 98 percent of full-time military students who started at the college in fall 2015 returned in fall 2016, compared to 80 percent of full-time students overall.

Ben Randle, director of veterans outreach and support services at the college, said that’s largely due to wraparound services provided by the school’s veterans center, which include help with education benefits and financial aid, mental health counseling, peer tutoring and mentoring, and — coming soon — a daycare.

“All of those things take a lot of pressure off of the students so they can actually concentrate on what’s most important, and that’s completing and using their benefits wisely and graduating,” Randle said.

When he started working for the college in 2008, the school, which specializes in allied health programs, had 35 veteran, active-duty and military dependent students. This year, there are 728 who fit that description, he said.

The University of South Florida has also seen recent growth, with more than double the number of first-time veteran students entering the school this fall as compared to fall 2016, said Jason Miller, associate director of the Office of Veterans Success on campus. This has been accompanied by an expansion of veteran-centered programs, including a veterans-only class aimed at landing a job after college that grew out of a smaller job mentorship program at the school.

The class, now in its second semester, features experts from various industries in the Tampa area and offers veterans a chance to polish their resumes and interview skills.

Savannah Technical College near Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia has also expanded its military-focused offerings with the recent launch of a welding program primarily for transitioning service members. The free four-month program comes with textbooks, a pre-hire agreement with shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries and five certificates upon completion.

“Many soldiers...they’re scared to get out, and they don’t have anything going for them on the outside,” said Army Specialist Michael Williams, 21, a recent graduate of the program. “This gave me a platform and an opportunity to find success outside of the military before actually getting out.”

Military Times announces 2018 Best Colleges rankings

Virtual engagement

Holding office hours at 1 a.m.? It’s all in a day’s – or a night’s – work for Gary Mansi, a professor at ECPI university.

“In the online world, one of our challenges overall for any student is that we’re not face-to-face, and we’re not in an environment that’s controlled by us,” said Mansi, who teaches computer and information science classes for the university that’s based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “You have to be really flexible and able to change things quickly.”

For him, that means working on the weekends to meet with a student deployed to Afghanistan or recording lessons to send to a student on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

A large majority of schools that responded to our survey said they had at least one full degree program offered online. And when asked whether they have a veterans office or center where military students can meet, socialize, study or get help with benefits or academic work, 13 percent said they offered the equivalent of these services online.

At University of Maryland University College, where nearly half of all students are veterans or active-duty service members and most students take classes online, students can take advantage of Mil-Vet Checkpoint, the school’s online version of its student veteran lounge. There, students can interact with other veterans, see job advertisements and access digital books.

“It’s the same experience, whether you’re taking classes with us stateside, Europe or Asia,” said Keith Hauk, associate vice president for stateside veterans initiatives and military support.

Virtual student engagement is also a priority at Liberty University, another majority-online school with more than 21,000 military and veteran students, according to data provided in the survey. Amanda Mitchell, a project specialist in the Office of Military Affairs, said Liberty live streams events from the school’s Military Emphasis Week and is gearing up for an online engagement day, where military students will share their stories and participate in an all-day forum on social media with the general student population using #HonorThem.

“Community is an important and sometimes overlooked aspect of online education and we try to leave no stone unturned in providing opportunities for online students to connect with us and with each other,” Mitchell said in an email.

Staff training

At Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia, Director of Military Education Outreach and Success Phil Gore trains recruiters in military-speak, because if they don’t know what JST stands for, they can pretty much count on a student walking away.

It goes beyond acronyms. Gore said he also tells recruiters not to be put off by a service member’s high confidence level.

“In the military, you’re taught to be very direct, very candid. Others might take that as you being abrupt and rude,” he said. “The recruiter on this side of the table and the service members on the other side of the table — everybody has a common goal.”

Three quarters of schools responding to the survey offer training in military issues for administrators, teachers, or the general student population.

At Central Community College in Nebraska, veteran students created a guide for new faculty, which includes FAQs related to military students, common challenges they face and tips for spotting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. The guidebook is part of a four-part mandatory training series, which also includes student panels.

Travis Karr, director of veteran and military services, said the training has expanded beyond the school to community leaders and other colleges, creating a culture of understanding that goes beyond the veterans center.

“Now the whole college is looking at what they can do to help our student veterans,” he said.