VETWAYS explores social support networks for student military across the country

Building authentic bonds is one key to smooth transitions, college/career success

May 14, 2024   |   By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

WCER's Ross Benbow is studying the way interpersonal bonds can help students with military experience succeed in college.

WCER's Ross Benbow is studying the way interpersonal bonds can help students with military experience succeed in college.

Current and former members of the military tend to thrive in higher education when service providers reach out to them early and when faculty members recognize the breadth of experience they bring to the classroom, according to new research from UW–Madison.

“Creating trust with folks who are honest and straightforward with them is important for these students,” Principal Investigator Ross Benbow says about the latest findings of his ongoing National Science Foundation (NSF) project—now gone national from its Wisconsin-only start—known as the Veteran Education to Workforce Affinity and Success Study, or VETWAYS. Benbow works with colleagues You-Geon Lee, Xin Xie, and Matthew Wolfgram on the study.

“We see that emphasis on reliable bonds over and over in survey responses and interviews," says Benbow, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) in UW–Madison's School of Education. "Having family members and fellow student veterans they can talk to about school is significant for these students. But we also see that having even just one educator in their network can help these students feel like they belong and are more satisfied with their institution."

The importance of building bonds on campus for smooth military-to-college transitions and later college/career success is one key finding of the study so far, but other things stand out as well. VETWAYS researchers also found that student military experience is associated with a mixed bag of challenges and benefits, correlating with higher college grades, less financial stress, increased resilience, and more career-oriented self-confidence—but also with physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments and a decreased sense of campus belonging. This is regardless of student age, gender, and other demographic factors.

The study also found that while strong social networks were important to both military and civilian college students finding higher education success and satisfaction, the definition of strong varied by type. Results show that non-military students benefited from close bonds with contacts across their networks. Student service members and veterans, however, tended to benefit from a broader range of contacts that weren't necessarily as close, not counting their ties with family members and fellow student veterans.

"Aside from their fellow veterans and family, folks they really trust, we see that service members and veteran students who have a wider range of people in their lives—people they aren’t as close to—feel like they belong on campus more," Benbow says. "Our data show that's not as important for students who aren't or weren't in the military."

Researchers say study findings can help university educators better understand and support military students, who have helped diversify U.S. higher education over the last twenty years. The work also shows a need for specifically veteran-focused services and spaces on campuses, Benbow says, due to findings that show significant connections between student veteran services, stronger social networks, and increased belonging and institutional satisfaction.

“I think it’s important for university leaders to be able to see results linking veteran services—meaning student veteran offices and coordinators, benefits officials, veteran lounges, and community-building activities—to stronger student networks and feelings of satisfaction in college,” Benbow explains. “It is directly relevant to important conversations taking place at UW-Madison and elsewhere.”

About the study and STEM

Supported by nearly $2 million in NSF grants, VETWAYS is a longitudinal study centered on tracking over time the academic success and college-to-career transitions of almost 1,200 undergraduate student service members and veterans (SSM/Vs) in six states, while investigating the social support networks of participants for patterns showing what helps and what doesn’t for success and satisfaction. The study also focuses on military students pursuing STEM majors, or the study of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Students with military experience are well positioned for success in STEM majors and careers because many of them receive highly technical types of training, often mechanical and medical, while in the service, Benbow notes. They would also provide diversity in STEM work fields, as they are often older than traditional graduates, more often impaired, and tend to come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

"They have a lot of intersecting identities,” Benbow says, “and they are going to school in higher numbers than they did before 2001. It is a really important community for the STEM workforce."

The VETWAYS study began in 2019 with a three-year, $556,000 NSF grant funding interviews and surveys of SSM/Vs at five Universities of Wisconsin campuses including UW–Madison. It expanded in 2022 with a second NSF grant of $1.4 million over four years to study the experiences of the same military-related student groups at universities in five other states, plus non-military students for comparisons. The five new campuses are the University of Maryland, Middle Tennessee State University, the University of New Mexico, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Wright State University in Ohio.

“We’re in the South, Midwest, Southwest, and Eastern seaboard,” Benbow explains, “and we’re seeing a lot of the same things” from SSM/Vs as researchers did previously in the Wisconsin study.

Replicating results outside Wisconsin matters because it suggests the study responses are representative of SSM/Vs nationwide. Adding those five states to the VETWAYS study was also important because the new locales have stronger military cultures than Wisconsin, which has fewer active military members and no large military installations.

"We thought we might see a lot of differences from the Wisconsin responses because of that, as social and cultural experience is important to our study," Benbow says. "But when it comes to their networks, to how important their relationships are in college, we are not seeing large differences."

Why social support networks

VETWAYS focuses on social support networks because they are so important to SSM/Vs' success in the military, where the building of structured relationships and tight bonds with peers, work teams, and superiors is highly regulated because it can be lifesaving.

Researchers were curious what those networks would look like as SSM/Vs left the military and transitioned to college and careers, and they hoped to tease out what sorts of constants or changes would correlate most strongly with gratification and success in the civilian world.

“These are students coming out of this all-encompassing environment, where almost every aspect of their daily life was decided for them,” Benbow says, “to one where they have thousands of decisions to make themselves, constantly. They are simultaneously leaving the military world and entering a civilian world, and a university world, which are very different social and cultural environments.”

Beyond social networks, the national study also is exploring comparisons with non-military students, which wasn't done in Wisconsin, and the new topic of how the use of veterans' services on campus affects participants' feelings of belonging and satisfaction with their education and institution.

Looking ahead to the next few years of the VETWAYS study, Benbow says the focus on social support networks will continue, with participant check-ins at regular intervals. Many of the original Wisconsin participants have now graduated, allowing more of a focus on the influence of social networks on the post-college careers of that group.

The researchers will next reach out to that group this fall, Benbow says, with questions ranging from their latest pay rates and how meaningful they find their work to how satisfied they are with their lives.

"The further out we can go, the better," Benbow says. "Seeing those kinds of outcomes is potentially really helpful to knowing what we can do better in college to help them down the line."

For more information

The VETWAYS research team has published six data reports on findings from the first phase of the national study, carried out between October 2022 and April 2023. Findings cover results from analyses of 1,590 surveys and 74 interviews, with one report for each of the five universities and a sixth report compiling findings from all five.

The reports are centered on student military experiences and transitions into college, career plans, social support networks, and relationships between these factors. Insights and recommendations for educators and other stakeholders, based on the study results, are also presented.

Reports are in the Publications section of the VETWAYS website here. Similar data reports from the Wisconsin portion of the study are also available on that page, with findings from UW–Madison, and the Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Green Bay, and Stout campuses.