Research Spotlight: Explaining interstate military friendly policy diffusion across U.S. universities: uncovering vertical-diagonal diffusion

The faces walking from class to class on college campuses continue to become more diverse, including in age. What have been deemed “nontraditional students,” or students who were unable or chose not to proceed directly to college following high school, are steadily increasing their numbers on college campuses. There is not a more concentrated group of nontraditional students than student veterans. These are students who have served in the U.S. military and then chose to transition back into their civilian lives through higher education. Many are able to do so because of the education benefits earned while serving.

Veterans have been returning to campus since the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act 1944 (aka, “G.I. Bill”). In fact, that very piece of legislation which democratized higher education for an entire generation is what turned our Florida State College for Women into the Florida State University we know today by offering education benefits to those returning from service following World War II. The passage of the penultimate version of that same bill in 2008, this one called the “Post-9/11 G.I. Bill,” brought another influx of transitioning servicemembers to classrooms across the country.

In the 64 years from 1944 to 2008, colleges and universities adopted various policies aimed at bolstering the success and easing the transition of this talented group of diverse students, but understanding where, how, and why universities chose which policies to implement on campus was not clear. In the years following the implementation of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill in the fall of 2009, the number of these policies also boomed, and again, no clear pattern of adoption appeared. In 2013, President Barack Obama signed an executive order publishing the 8 Keys for Veteran Success, which outlined best practices for university policies to improve the college experience for veterans, but the patterns of diffusion remained elusive. The idea that different schools would see an influx in a diverse group of students and choose wildly different approaches to these students lead to the realization that all diversity groups are approached in an apparently unsystematic way.

Thus, we sought to uncover if there were unseen diffusion patterns in university decision-making regarding this type of policies. We were specifically curious if the evidence showed that universities imitate other universities within their state, or whether they look to national leaders to inform their policy choices. We also wondered if internal factors such as the school’s size, performance, or whether it is a public or private university are more impactful in this decision-making.

What we discovered was fascinating; it turns out that the adoption patterns of these types of diversity management policies are less random than we thought. Universities often imitate their peers in other states, finding inspiration from other commonalities other than location, and this happens more when the universities are already national leaders in veteran diversity policies. For those that are not leaders, they often look to those nearby for inspiration, but then look elsewhere for innovation as their portfolio of supportive policies grow. The most intriguing pattern came in the form of what we identified as a vertical-diagonal pattern where a state-level policy inspires universities in other states. This pattern explains why, following the delivery of a policy panel on state-mandated priority registration for student veterans at the Student Veterans of America conference in 2013 by student veteran leaders from Florida State University who had been involved in advocating for the passage of this policy, universities in other states, such as Texas, Ohio, and Virginia, began implementing similar measures. Thus, where state governments mandate policies for universities within their state, they inspire voluntary adoption of diversity management policies at universities in other states.

The possible responses brought with this realization in support of diverse student groups is limitless. The most obvious is intentionally sharing innovative ideas for supportive policies across state borders. National conferences, such as the one held annually for student veterans, are optimal locations where diverse students and supportive administrators can glean innovative policy ideas from peer universities and government officials. In the information economy of the 21st Century, though, and inspired by the requirements of operating amidst a pandemic, travel to a national conference can be supplemented by building online information sharing networks of these same diverse student groups and administrators. Though we did note that student support policies are a limited supply, suggesting that multiple diverse student groups may be vying for the same pieces of the policy pie, so further creativity and innovation may be required to ensure all students feel the impacts of supportive policies. Understanding how diversity management policy ideas travel can inform advocacy efforts that can bolster the support felt by all students, contributing to an evolving inclusive environment in higher education.

Dr. Daniel Fay is an Associate Professor and Ph.D. Director at the Florida State University Department of Public Administration. You can learn more about Dr. Fay here.

Dr. Abbby Kinch is the VP of Programs and Services at Student Veterans of America. She recently graduated with her Ph.D. in Public Administration from Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Kinch here.

Dr. Frances Berry is the Frank Sherwood Professor of Public Administration and Askew Eminent Scholar Chair at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Berry here.

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