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Case Study #5: Bolstering a Decentralized Success

Gates builds a data backbone for Student Veterans of America

Student veteran organizations have existed at colleges across America for decades. In the years immediately following World War II, the Korean War, and the conflict in Vietnam, large influxes of veterans onto college campuses turned institutions of higher learning into institutions of re-integration as well. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, the ranks of student veteran organizations began to swell again.

In early 2008, student leaders from 20 local student veteran organizations from throughout the country gathered together in Chicago to found Student Veterans of America (SVA). The founders “recognized that there was greater potential for these groups to support the student veteran population if they coalesced under one banner,” says Matt Feger, director of development for the group.

SVA remains a chapter-based organization, which keeps it easy for new local chapters to spring up and to organize their affairs in their own way. The only requirements are that each group register as a student organization on its campus, obtain an advisor at the school, and have one veteran point of contact. Rather than forcing chapters into one mold, the national headquarters works with each to improve their operations and serve their local members as effectively as possible.

And members differ from other students in some important ways. As Feger summarizes:

They come to school with very different life experiences than the 18-year-old coming straight out of high school. They are much older. Many are first-generation college students. Many have families already. And many have just come back from a war that was different from any others that we’ve been in. They are trying to simultaneously adjust to life as a civilian and to life as a student. Schools weren’t really prepared for that.

In four years, SVA has grown from 20 chapters to more than 700, spanning all 50 states. Local branches have succeeded at shaping campus policies, training chapter members, awarding scholarships, and advocating for student veterans in the public sphere. For example, in 2010, the SVA chapter leader from Florida State University wrote a business plan that convinced the university to invest in veterans. The graduation rate of veterans at FSU climbed to 86 percent, and the university committed to building a 30,000-square-foot veterans center on campus.

The Gates Foundation Builds a Strong Backbone

Just as SVA was experiencing its meteoric rise in membership, Margot Tyler, then an officer for college programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, became interested in veterans as a target population. “With the implementation of the new G.I. Bill, I knew there were a lot of opportunities available for veterans, but that those opportunities were not being fully exploited.” In particular, many vets did not complete their degree on time. Tyler set a philanthropic goal to “remove barriers to college completion for veteran students.

She began an intensive process to find the right service provider for the Gates Foundation to partner with. She conducted informal focus groups with current student veterans, had conversations with institutions of higher learning, and conducted research on potential grantees ranging from think tanks to national education associations. Ultimately, because of SVA’s direct ties to student veterans themselves and great potential for growth, Tyler became convinced that SVA would be the best steward of a 2011 grant to move student veterans toward degree completion.

Student Veterans of America has hundreds of local branches that help shape campus policies, award scholarships, and advocate for student veterans.

“Once we identified SVA,” explains Tyler, “it was all about working with them as partners to develop a growth plan.” Tyler saw that Student Veterans of America was a young organization with a lean staff that had relied primarily on the passion and energy of volunteers. For its next stage she urged that they get some professional help. Together, Gates and SVA chose the consulting group Bridgespan to help formulate future strategy.

From the level of 400 chapters when Gates paid for this consulting work, Student Veterans of America has since exceeded 700 chapters. And the growth has been carefully managed. “We collectively decided,” says Feger, “on five strategic initiatives, on a staff growth plan, and on a steady-state budget.” SVA strengthened itself in a few key areas: It now provides some small grants to its local chapters. It holds training sessions for its student leaders. It hosts national conferences to help members spread ideas between chapters. And it is collaborating with Purdue University’s Military Family Research Institute to create a manual for chapter activities.

The strengthened and professionalized Student Veterans of America also began to generate crucial statistics on the college paths of today’s veterans. No reliable estimate of the graduation rate of veterans using the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill existed. So SVA began working with the administrators of G.I. Bill spending, and with the National Student Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse knows who completes a degree, transfers, or drops out of college, and by matching that with student information from the administrators of the G.I. Bill, the first good data on exactly which veterans are succeeding or failing, and at what types of academic institutions, will eventually become available. This factual background will be of great future value to all parties interested in helping veterans succeed.

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