When Daniel de la Cruz left the Marines in 2002, he struggled to find his place in the civilian world.globe

He enrolled in the police academy and graduated, thinking he would land a job that fit his military skills, but there were no job openings. He ended up in retail, working his way to assistant store manager, only to be laid off after five years.

With nowhere else to turn, de la Cruz decided to go to college to learn new skills. In December, he’ll earn his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on business from the University of Houston-Downtown.

He’s not alone. More and more veterans, including those who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, are choosing to pursue higher education after their military service. Colleges and universities are going out of their way to attract and retain them.

Since 9/11, more campuses have developed programs and services to help veterans transition from combat to the classroom. Many campuses have beefed up financial aid for vets and have opened offices to serve as one-stop shops for services and social bonding.

In the Houston area, the University of Houston-Clear Lake opened a veterans services office on June 1. This spring, Rice University awarded its first scholarship from its new Military Scholars Program for veterans enrolled in its graduate business program. And Houston Community College, which has a central veterans services office, is looking to establish veteran resource centers at each of its five campuses.

“The military teaches veterans a lot,” said Yvette Bendeck, associate vice president for enrollment management at UH-Clear Lake. “They need to be able to leverage what they have in a new profession with a lot of guidance and support.”

Post-9/11 GI bills have made it possible for more veterans to return to school, but navigating the college system can be overwhelming for many veterans. Interacting with younger students also can be challenging for vets, many of whom have families and jobs, university officials said.


UH-Downtown opened its Veterans Services office in 2010. Office coordinator Chad Matranga, a veteran and 2006 UHD graduate, said the office assists with processing state and federal education benefits, refers veterans to community agencies for counseling and sponsors activities for them.

De la Cruz, 35, says when he first arrived at UHD it was “a big culture shock” being around 18- and 19-year-old students. The married father of two said he felt more at home once he connected with the Veterans Services office and the Veteran Student Association.

“The environment here (at UHD) is great for us,” said de la Cruz. “The services they provide have kept me here.”

The American Council on Education took at look at how institutions are serving the growing number of student veterans in 2012. The survey showed that more than half of 690 responding colleges and universities – public and private – have veteran programs and services, a 5 percent increase from its first survey in 2009.

The study also found that 71 percent of the institutions said providing services for military service members and veterans is part of their long-term strategic plan, a 12 percent increase from 2009.

In addition, about 89 percent of the institutions said they had increased their emphasis on services since Sept. 11, 2001, through marketing, outreach and new programs.

Institutions indicated they would continue to consider veteran-friendly changes during the next five years, including increasing services and providing professional development for faculty and staff on dealing with issues facing vets.

Rachel Fleck, director of development for the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, said Americans have become more appreciative of what military service members are doing to protect their country since 9/11. And colleges and universities are following their lead, she said.

“We recognize we need to do what we can to put them back into society when they return,” Fleck said.

The business school last year raised more than $1 million from community and veteran alumni to recruit veterans and current military service members for its new Military Scholars Program. This spring, the school made offers to five veterans and military service members to attend the school.

Four accepted and will start in the fall. One was awarded the full-ride Military Scholar scholarship, which includes a $25,000 stipend for living expenses. The others received financial aid to cover half of tuition costs.

The goal is to have veterans or current military service members make up 10 percent of the full-time MBA class, Fleck said.

Jimmy Battista, 33, earned his MBA from Rice in May and now works in the oil and gas industry. The former Navy Seal said Rice has embraced veterans by helping them connect with veteran alumni and the corporate community. The university also supported veteran students’ efforts to form the Veterans in Business Association in 2011, he said.

He said he’s glad institutions are reaching out to veterans, which wasn’t the case when those who served during the Vietnam War returned home.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but more needs to be done on the employer side” Battista said.