The bleak job market during the recession has led to higher college enrollment, but higher education also has had a recent influx of a specific population—returning military veterans. In response, many colleges are stepping up services for student veterans, including tailored fitness and recreation offerings.

Last year, about 800,000 veterans took advantage of the financial support for education granted by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s a 40 percent increase from 2009, the year the bill was introduced.

Universities have offered administrative support to student veterans for decades, but comprehensive programs that help veterans adjust to campus life are relatively new at most schools, says Amanda Kraus, a program manager for Veterans Education and Transition Services (VETS) at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson.

Kraus directs a Congressional grant that examines how disabled veterans integrate into higher education—a priority because veterans are more likely to be disabled than other students. One in five combat veterans attending college has a disability, compared to one in 10 nonveterans, according to the 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

Despite the higher rates of disabilities, Kraus says that the VETS research has identified recreation and sports Universities Recreation Services Aid Student Veterans’ Transition into College programs as a way to attract veterans to higher education and help them transition to student life.

“A lot of veterans share the identifiers of an athlete,” Kraus says. “They probably would consider themselves healthy, strong, competitive and team players.”

Team sports are a chief focus at UA. The school has the largest collegiate wheelchair sports program in the country and has hosted three national sports camps for physically disabled veterans. The student-run veterans center also established intramural teams for able-bodied veterans. Those teams play against non-veteran student teams.

Even though UA consulted Kraus’ colleagues about accessible cardio and strength equipment when renovating its main campus recreation center last year, many veterans still prefer to use the state-of-the-art gym across the street in the university’s Disability Resource Center (DRC).

“Some veterans, who are most likely new to disability, don’t necessarily feel comfortable going to gyms anymore,” Kraus says. “Part of it may be that they don’t know how to work out or they don’t know how to use certain equipment now, but there is also the identity angle. This is still new, so they can feel anxieties and pressures.”

Student veterans who have “invisible disabilities,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, may find going to a busy rec center overwhelming and would benefit from having access to a more exclusive workout facility, she says.

The DRC fitness center has a complete line of accessible equipment, but it also has standard equipment and fitness accessories because many able-bodied veterans prefer to work out there with their peers.

Although overall satisfaction levels were comparable between veterans and non-veterans, the NSSE revealed that student veterans feel lower levels of campus support than non-veterans, and they interact less often with other students and faculty members. Being with other students who share their military experience can be more comfortable for veterans, but it’s also important that they feel they engaged in the larger university community.

At UA, campus recreation has been communicating with VETS about ways they can work together to better serve student veterans, but the partnership is still in development, says Cody Nicholls, assistant director of business and student development for UA’s campus recreation department.

“What we are working with is offering specific programming or classes that our vets are interested in,” says Nicholls, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Kuwait. “In other words, as opposed to creating a program or class, we want to work with our vets in creating it.”

Kraus thinks it’s important, at least initially, to market things for veterans only.

“Vets would be more likely to go use the rec center if they went with a group of veterans, or if there was a class or program for vets,” she says.