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Lawmaker aims for campuses that support student veterans

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PHOENIX – A Republican lawmaker wants to build on a new state law that allows community colleges and universities to be certified as “veteran supportive campuses.”

One bill by Rep. J.D. Mesnard of Chandler would require schools that have earned the designation to report graduation numbers for veterans. Another would require the state Department of Veterans Services to promote the opportunity to receive certification.

As an adjunct faculty member at Mesa Community College, Mesnard said he sees firsthand a lack resources available to veterans. The problem, he said, is that schools don’t know how best to support them.

“I believe veterans deserve to be treated better when they return to school,” Mesnard said.

A law that took effect in August 2011 allows schools to seek certification from the Arizona Department of Veterans Services as veteran supportive campuses. To qualify, they must complete steps including a survey identifying needs of student veterans, forming a campus steering committee and offering peer mentoring for veterans.

Arizona State University was the first to apply, and the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University are preparing applications, according to Dave Hampton, public information officer and legislative liaison for the Department of Veteran Services.

HB 2601, which received a unanimous endorsement Wednesday from the House Higher Education, Innovation and Reform Committee, would require certified schools to report graduation rates for veterans twice a year. That would add to an existing requirement that schools report enrollment rates for veterans.

According to the Arizona Veterans’ Education Foundation, 92 percent of Arizona student veterans didn’t graduate from four-year programs as of 2009.

“Enrollment is good, but graduation is better,” Mesnard said. “The 92 percent not graduating is more than anecdotal. Graduation rates are abysmal.”

HB 2602, also endorsed unanimously, would require the Department of Veterans Services to make a “reasonable effort” to notify schools of the opportunity to be certified as veteran supportive campuses. The agency also would have to list certified campuses on its website.

Hampton told lawmakers that the bill would be an “unnecessary hammer” because his agency is already working to encourage schools.

In an interview, Mesnard said the current law is insufficient because it says the department may reach out to schools.

“We need to take the option out of it,” he said.

Gene van den Bosch, president and CEO of Arizona Veterans’ Education Foundation, said he hopes the bills help all campuses receive certification.

“Today the majority of student veterans are not graduating, and the question is, ‘Why?’” Bosch said. “That’s what this bill is trying to address, so that when these guys and gals come back and have all kinds of issues they don’t have distractions and know they’re in a supportive environment on campus.”