Why Don’t Top-Tier Colleges Care About Enrolling Veterans?

News and views from academia.
Nov. 14 2013 1:02 PM

G.I. Joe College

Just 168 veterans were enrolled at prestigious U.S. colleges in 2013. That’s a national disgrace.

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“I don’t see any evidence of that,” said Wesleyan President Michael Roth. “The average veteran entering college is in his or her late 20s or early 30s; many have been through a very intense experience serving overseas, and all have incredible training from the military. The workload at a highly selective college or university, while different, may seem easy to them! And unlike the typical 18-year-old first-year college student who comes straight from high school, veterans have had a number of extra years to consider their future and decided that they really want to go to college now.”

Swarthmore College had zero veterans enrolled this year, and the reply from President Rebecca Chopp joined the chorus of the usual excuses. The Swarthmore situation troubles me on two counts: First, I don't see how institutions that benefit from so many federal programs and policies, from Pell Grants to research funding with generous overhead to tax-deducted donations and a tax-free endowment, can neglect the young men and women we have all sent to war. Second, working with returning veterans is part of what I do as a Quaker. Incidentally, Quakers founded Swarthmore in 1864.

I wrote to Chopp:

Williams, where I went, has zero veterans, has no spiritual or moral traditions. Trustees there refuse to discuss or wonder why I am asking. I can't give that pass to Swarthmore. I don't need to list to you, I know, why Swarthmore would seek a higher standard than Williams. The usual obfuscation is that a college would be happy to take veterans but none are applying. We both know that a college would need to recruit this population. And we both know, I think, that selective colleges, especially those as wealthy as Swarthmore, have exactly as many of certain types of students—soccer players, chemists, oboists—as they choose to have.
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Chopp’s reply: 

We are geared in our work toward undergraduates in the age range of 18-22 and that fact sometimes makes choosing us less likely for older veterans. In recent years we have been focused on the children of veterans and we have at present seven children of veterans enrolled, which is a part of the support that veterans and their families seek and need. The community colleges and the large state and research universities are better able to enroll large numbers at once.

My rebuttal: Preposterous. For more than a decade, the U.S. has been a nation at war. Focusing on 18- to 22-year-olds is a decision by Swarthmore, not the hand of fate. Until the wars are over and the veterans healed, Swarthmore, a Quaker college, could decide to welcome and accommodate 100, even 200, veterans. Would Swarthmore accept a tax on its endowment to support veterans at community colleges? An institution supported by federal aid and tax policies shouldn’t relegate 18- to 22-year-olds to war with no responsibility to support those students on their return.

Chopp: “We are only able to enroll smaller numbers given our class size and the commitment to a broad range of access to the liberal arts experience that we exercise.”

In the eyes of Swarthmore, then, students of talent who have chosen not to serve their country are equal in diversity to those who have?

Chopp: “In our history the largest numbers of veterans we accommodated came after the Second World War, as many who were our students before enlisting in that war returned. Those numbers are less likely in this modern era.”

“Less likely”? With 646,302 veterans and dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Swarthmore made room for just seven dependents and no veterans.

Still, I did find some good news. This year, Stanford’s summer school will include a program for up to 20 veterans to build their academic skills. That’s the result of several years of advocacy by William Treseder, a Marine combat veteran and Stanford graduate via community college. (Treseder says he came upon the summer school idea in one of my columns.)

And through the Posse program, Vassar enrolled 11 veterans this fall and will enroll as many each year in the future. Wesleyan, a COFHE school, has also signed on. “We found that it was a real challenge to ‘go it alone’ as a single institution,” said Wesleyan’s Roth. “We were impressed by Posse’s veterans program and felt that joining forces with them was the best way to enroll more veterans every year.”

Wick Sloane writes about college accessibility for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter.

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