As America confronts systemic racial injustice, it is more important than ever to look at how students of color are faring in their college education. Postsecondary education can be the “great equalizer” (as the Secretary of Education called it in a 2011 commencement address) because, on average, Americans who earn a bachelor’s degree will earn roughly $1 million more over their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma. The payoff is particularly relevant to veterans of color who earn the GI Bill through serving on America’s Armed Forces. According to the Defense Department, a growing and significant proportion of the enlisted ranks are people of color.

Students of color often begin their academic journey on unequal footing. They encounter a number of obstacles that impede their ability to access, excel, and complete their academic goals. Veterans of color are not immune to these obstacles and are often plagued by additional external factors. The research team at my organization, Veterans Education Success, recently published a report on postsecondary outcomes for undergraduate veterans of color. The key findings:

  • Veterans of all races outperformed their nonveteran peers in degree attainment, and veterans of color outperformed their nonveteran peers at a significantly higher rate. Overall, 34 percent of undergraduate veterans of color earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, compared to 18 percent of their nonveteran counterparts.
  • Undergraduate veterans of color were more likely than their white peers to withdraw without a credential, which may be related to the fact that greater proportions of veterans of color faced five-or-more of seven risk factors linked with non-completion, such as having dependents or being single parents.

While veterans’ stronger degree attainment is heartening, I was concerned to see the findings that undergraduate veterans of color were more likely than white veterans to withdraw from school without a degree. As a society, we need to ensure that veterans of color are given the chance to succeed in college. It is critical that policymakers look at the obstacles veterans of color face – and take concrete steps to solve them.

Some veterans are not achieving their academic and professional goals because they are attending low-quality or predatory schools that fail to provide an adequate education and wrap-around support – which ultimately results in withdrawal or the inability to be gainfully employed. Indeed, our research team found that undergraduates of color – both veterans and nonveterans—were more likely to enroll in for-profit schools. And enrolling in a for-profit school brought students higher loan debt, across race and veteran status.

For others, personal circumstances make the pursuit and completion of a degree program more difficult. Our research team found that veterans of color were more likely to face more risk factors linked with non-completion, including having dependents or being single parents. Indeed, veterans of color are more than four-times as likely to be first-generation students than white veteran students. The higher education landscape is more easily navigable to those that are fortunate enough to have familial experience in higher education. If your parents never got the chance to go to college, they won’t have the experience and knowledge to help you avoid a predatory, low-quality college and find a good college with good support systems.  These circumstantial obstacles make college completion more difficult.

That’s why we’re proud to endorse REACH-NY’s call for New York (and other states) to adopt a serious goal of achieving postsecondary attainment for 60% for all races and ethnicities by 2030. As Aiming Higher states so clearly, “setting an equity-driven attainment goal is the first step to launching a postsecondary equity agenda. It creates a clear and explicit target for the state, higher education sectors, and regions, and it requires leaders at all levels to focus on the postsecondary needs of groups of students that too often go underserved.”

We also endorse the common-sense solutions to reach that goal – because we believe strongly that government leaders and higher education institutions must address the risk-factors that veterans of color and so many other students face, including:

  • Addressing both the academic and non-academic costs of attending college, so that students can meet basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and technology,
  • Providing wraparound services,
  • Making postsecondary education fit adult learner’s schedules and career-focused pathways,
  • Ensuring adequate funding for public colleges,
  • Creating strong academic and non-academic advising and support – especially for students who are first in their families to go to college, and
  • Ensuring credit for prior learning based on workforce and other experiences that could translate into college credit.

The U.S. Department of Education and Veterans Affairs can also help by providing clear information on their College Scorecard and GI Bill Comparison Tool and by not approving low-quality and predatory schools to begin with.  After all, veterans assume that if the Department of Veterans Affairs has put its stamp of approval on a school, then it must be worthy of veterans’ time and sacrifice. But too often, this is not true, as predatory, low-quality, for-profit colleges take a highly disproportionate share of GI Bill funds, even schools that have faced repeat law enforcement action for fraud.

Higher education institutions also have a role to play. They should have transparent policies and accurately share with prospective students the information they need to make a college decision. Higher education institutions should also provide strong their wrap-around services to help students who face risk-factors and credit for prior learning. Such information is likely to impact a student’s decision when deciding on which school to attend. This is even more essential in states that have not initiated state-wide policies on academic credit transfer.

It is essential that veterans are provided all of the information available at the outset of exhibiting interest in an institution, to ensure that all veterans become an educated consumer and successfully navigate the higher education landscape.

The need for a more educated “education consumer” is clear: The higher education options are plentiful, but the outcomes vary.

Government leaders and postsecondary institutions can and must ensure all their citizens succeed in the workforce, and that requires a strong commitment to postsecondary attainment – especially for students like veterans of color who face significant (and unfair) risk factors linked with noncompletion.  The imperative is especially strong to serve the men and women who honorably wore our nation’s uniform.