The University of South Florida was listed as the most veteran friendly college in the nation by Money Magazine in 2015. But it’s not looking so “friendly” after refusing to re-admit a student veteran expelled because of a PTSD-related incident.
It leads to questions about the “veteran friendly” rankings. What do they mean and who do they serve?
For USF President Judy Genshaft, the No. 1 ranking is a source of pride.
“As you know Money Magazine rated us No. 1 in the country as veteran friendly, and it was the Veteran Times that listed us number two,” Genshaft said after the December USF trustees meeting. “So, our veterans are clearly, very, very important to us.”
Student veterans also are a reliable source of tuition.
In 2015, USF received more than $7.1 million in GI Bill benefits, according to a letter Veteran Administration Secretary Bob McDonald sent last month to Genshaft.
His letter was responding to a plea from Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder, McDonald's West Point classmate and head of the Hillsborough Veterans Treatment Court.
Holder is lobbying Genshaft, the USF Board of Trustees and now the VA Secretary to help Clay Allred, a former USF student veteran.
USF expelled the former Green Beret for an off-campus crime. He was 17 credits short of his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. In August 2014, the combat veteran was arrested and charged after threatening a store clerk with a weapon and later firing a revolver into the air after he was not allowed to use the gas station restroom.
The felony convictions landed Allred in veterans’ court and under Holder’s supervision. The court got Allred help from the VA where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and received treatment.
“Clearly abhorrent behavior triggered as we now know by his PTSD and his TBI," Holder said after making an appeal to USF trustees in December. "Are we to stigmatize these men and women throughout their lives?”
Despite Holder’s efforts, USF denied Allred readmission again in an letter sent last Friday. The rejection letter stated that “once a student is expelled, they cannot be considered for readmission.” It also stated that Allred was turned down because he is still under felony probation and because of the severity of his crime. Allred has 10 days to appeal.
Allred's case was not on the radar when Money Magazine ranked USF at the top, according to reporter Kaitlin Mulhere. She said she used metrics like staff levels, support services and graduation rates to create the list that was a merge of Money Magazine's Best Colleges and Military Times Veteran Friendly rankings.
She said the Post 9-11 GI Bill benefits make veterans desirable students.
“If somebody was maybe a little more cynical, they’d point out that student veterans bring with them considerable tuition money from the federal government,” Mulhere said. “They’re kind of a guaranteed tuition bill for colleges.”
Veterans are valued students but not solely for the GI tuition according to David Vacchi, who is working on his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst that looks at the success of veterans recently graduated from college.
“The real benefit in bringing in veterans on the GI Bill is you’re graduating students without debt,” Vacchi said. “Alumni that graduate without debt is going to get to towards that ability to donate much faster.”
Vacchi is a retired Army officer and associate director for veteran services at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He said, in his experience, veterans don’t use the magazine rankings when selecting a school. He’s not a fan of the reports that rely in part on self-reporting surveys.
“I’m wondering if magazines are just trying to capitalize on the popularity of the Post 9-11 GI Bill in order for them to make money or are they truly interested in helping veterans find the best fit for them?” Vacchi said. “There’s nothing in these lists that suggests any attempt to make an individual fit.”
He was unfamiliar with the USF case, but said it is not typical – that most student veterans are not dealing with PTSD.
Yet, Vacchi said he was puzzled that USF didn’t go beyond set policies and reach out to Allred: “Why can’t the director of admissions or a board of people or heck the president sit down and meet with this veteran and make an assessment for themselves?”
Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs McDonald will be doing his own assessment when he sits down with USF President Genshaft on Feb. 12 in Washington D.C. to talk about how to make USF friendlier toward student veterans with legal problems and mental health issues.