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Answering a Need for Military Veterans Seeking Higher Education

Three Silicon Valley professionals answered a need for an website that provides one-stop shopping for military veterans seeking to go to college.

In 2012, three Silicon Valley professionals with specialties in technology, data science and web content joined forces to create a website that would provide one-stop shopping for those seeking to go to college. Called the Online College Database, the site receives tens of thousands of visitors each month from more than 130 countries.

Going to college can be a complicated business. With the Online College Database, prospective students of all ages can find tuition, enrollment, university type and location-based information with integrated Google Maps; they also can examine various rankings to see how their favorite schools compare against the competition.

According to Wes Ricketts, vice president of communications, the deluge of monthly e-mails provide valuable feedback regarding prospective students’ biggest concerns and the information they need to ease the stress of decision-making. Those recurring themes led to a new guidebook section of the Online College Database, titled “Higher Education Resources for Veterans and Their Families.” The guide officially launched earlier this year.

“We received so many e-mails from veterans with questions about things like the post-9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program, and adjusting to life on campus,” Ricketts said. “We’d clearly found a need, and we wanted to fill that need.”

So Ricketts and his partners, founder Doug Jones and data scientist Aaron Merlob, analyzed the web traffic and e-mail communications and gathered the most common themes, assembling a rough outline for the new guide.

“Over half the topics were financial,” Ricketts noted. “We also had a lot of academic, social and medical concerns, because the vets hadn’t been in school for at least four years. They recognized the challenges presented by post-traumatic stress disorder, age differences with the rest of the students, and medical issues.”

The trio hired authors Ron Kness and Maggie O’Neill to assemble the guide. Retired from the military after 36 years of service, Kness has expert knowledge of the GI Bill, scholarships, grants and loans for post-secondary education through his role as supervisor of military personnel services. An accomplished writer from northern Nevada, O’Neill has covered veterans’ events and issues — including PTSD — for many years.

“We really relied on them for the nitty gritty,” Ricketts said. “Ron was in the service for so many years, and Maggie is a great writer and researcher.”

The guide is organized by interest: financial, academic, social, geographic and medical. In the financial category, the guide covers the post-9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program, and available grants, scholarships and tuition assistance.

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“Paying for college is tricky,” Ricketts said. “There was a huge interest in having three sources of financing, so these became keystones of the guide.”

On the academic side, Ricketts said, vets were interested in the best way to develop their study skills, and they wanted to know how to get credit for time served.

“You pick up a lot of skills and knowledge in the military,” he explained. “People wanted to know about how they could translate their skills to the private sector, and what programs and courses would make the most sense.”

Socially, vets were curious about living in the dorms, fitting in and making friends. Ricketts said he also was surprised to find what he called “a community within a community” – female veterans.

“There were so many women vets with different needs,” he observed. “They had their own set of challenges and interests, so we made this a separate section within the ‘social’ category.”

In the geographic section, the guide addresses the differences between U.S. states, while the medical section deals with PTSD and disabilities in the wake of military service.

“We’ve gotten really good feedback so far,” Ricketts said. “It’s been overwhelmingly positive. That being said, we’re reaching out to veterans’ services on campuses around the country to ask them to share the guide with vets on campus and let us know if we’ve missed anything.”

What really drives the guide, according to Ricketts, is the quality of its resources. He and his partners were committed to listing as many as possible and, he said, that’s what makes the guide work.

“If we ever did another, it would probably be a more detailed guide focusing on just one specific aspect,” he said. “One section of the existing guide, for example. There’s a lot of content in each section.”

The Online College Database draws from data sources such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder, The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The site creators note that they publish only data that is backed by the U.S. government.