Small, Private Colleges Woo Veterans With Scholarships

Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking advantage of GI benefits to pay for higher education. But most are looking at large state schools or for-profit and online universities. Now, a new scholarship program in California focuses on veterans whose experiences and talents are better suited for smaller private liberal arts colleges.

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Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking advantage of the post-9/11 GI bill to pay for higher education. They often end up at large state schools or for-profit, online universities.

Gloria Hillard reports that a scholarship program in California is opening the doors for veterans who may be better suited for smaller, and more expensive, private liberal arts colleges.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Cory Bloor is giving me a tour of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

CORY BLOOR: This is the model shop, where we make a bunch of prototypes for all of our projects.

HILLARD: Founded in 1930, it's considered one of the top design schools in the country. The tall, 26-year-old student in jeans and a gray hoodie says he briefly attended a few other schools before finding the perfect fit here.

BLOOR: It has this real prominent work ethic that I love about it - because when you're in the military, it's basically like you're working 24-7. So I think it's, in that sense, it's really similar to here.

(LAUGHTER)

HILLARD: Bloor spent four years in the Air Force. In 2007, he was deployed to Iraq. During that time, one of his jobs was delivering donated supplies to locals in need. That's when he realized his true passion was to help people.

BLOOR: That was like, the a-ha moment for me. I've just got to do it. Even if it means failing, I've just got to try.

HILLARD: Through the school, the product design student was able to put that goal into action. Last year, he traveled to Uganda.

BLOOR: I went there and worked on a water-filter system project. I mean, it's really great seeing people's lives being affected by what you do.

HILLARD: Sitting at a tall table littered with his drawings and illustrations, he picks up a sketch pencil. Bloor attends evening classes so he can maintain his job as an apartment manager during the day. Generally, small, private universities and colleges - like Art Center - are much more costly than larger, public universities. The post-9/11 GI Bill covers only some of his expenses and tuition at the private college.

BLOOR: And it's really, this difficult hardship just to come up with the funds to - kind of fund that gap.

HILLARD: That's where the scholarship from the Southern California Ahmanson Foundation comes in, providing a third of his expenses for this term.

BLOOR: It kind of took that burden off my shoulders.

JEFFREY HOFFMAN: Arguably, we owe a special debt of gratitude in financial support for veterans.

HILLARD: Jeffrey Hoffman is the dean of students at Art Center. He says the Ahmanson Veteran Scholarship Initiative helps level the financial playing field for veterans. And the school benefits as well.

HOFFMAN: The culture here lends itself to a more mature, driven student. And again, I think that's a profile that fits our veterans.

HILLARD: About an hour's drive from the hills of Pasadena is Biola University, a private Christian school, and one of the 25 institutions benefiting from the Ahmanson Scholarship program. Jacari Miller came here in August. The 28-year old served six years in the Air Force.

JACARI MILLER: In Afghanistan, I kind of lost faith, or was angry with God. And then the door opened for Biola, and I thought Biola was the perfect chance for me to regain my faith.

HILLARD: Like many veterans pursuing higher education, Miller is older than the majority of students here. Often, that can be a challenge for veterans. But Miller says he enjoys the role.

MILLER: 'cause everybody look up at me as their older brother so - I love it.

HILLARD: Miller admits it's not easy being a student again. But he likes the fact that on this smaller campus, his professors know him by name. And he's made the school basketball team.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLS BOUNCING IN GYM)

MILLER: I miss the military life. But I think the basketball teammates here have replaced that, to a great degreem so - and I consider them as my family, my brothers.

HILLARD: When his Old Testament history class lets out, Miller joins the throng of students streaming out onto the quad. Many of them appear to be fresh out of high school - shoulders draped with earbud wires, iPads and computers tucked into their arms. At 6-foot-3, Miller stands out. It's not just his stature.

MILLER: I definitely have a different perspective of things. I've seen a lot during my time in the military, and I don't take anything for granted.

HILLARD: And that's a lesson that perhaps the younger students can learn from him.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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