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.

Students enter the Admissions Building on the campus of Harvard University.
No veterans here?

Photo by Glen Cooper/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

If you can believe it, the number of undergraduate veterans at the nation’s self-proclaimed most highly selective colleges is significantly fewer than we reported in 2011. The total this year: 168*. The * is because, again, too many of these colleges, the 31 invitation-only members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), don’t know. The number may bounce again.

“Disgraceful and absurd” is what I called the 232 total veterans in 2011. By comparison, the total number of veterans and dependents of veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill rose from 555,329 students in 2011 to 646,302 in 2012. From 232 to 174 to 168—with the nation at war and 118,784 total undergraduate seats at the 31 COFHE colleges.

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Lost for synonyms, I asked Andrew Bacevich, retired U.S. Army colonel and author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, to describe the pitiful count of veterans at selective colleges. Bacevich is an eloquent critic of all of us—we, the people—for letting 1 percent of the population bear the nation’s military burden—fighting, deaths, and wounds.

“Here is an issue where the nation's most prestigious institutions should demonstrate some leadership,” Bacevich said. “With a very few admirable exceptions, they have failed to do so. That failure is nothing less than shameful.” (Listen to Bacevich on The Colbert Report and on Moyers & Company.)

Some colleges had been including the combined totals of both veterans and veteran dependents and family members using the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill in their count of veteran students. In 2011, Cornell University reported 48 veterans, with just one confirmed veteran this year. Duke University reported 22 veterans in 2011 and one this year. Rice University originally reported having 27 veterans last year but then amended that number to one veteran last year and one this year. Northwestern University reported 45 undergraduates who are either veterans or dependents, with the administration relying on a student group to sort out the details.

Lows for 2013: Yale University, two. Princeton University, one. Williams College, zero. Swarthmore College, zero. Harvard University—which did not reply to last year’s survey—reported 19 veterans this year but did not clarify whether that number includes dependents. The 27 veterans that Stanford University originally reported turned out to include dependents, and the administration hasn’t clarified the number yet.

Highs: University of Pennsylvania, 35. Georgetown University, 25—with 81 total traditional and nontraditional undergraduates, including veterans and active-duty military. Johns Hopkins University, 23. Washington University in St. Louis, 20. University of Rochester, 16. Dartmouth College, 14—one down from last year.

Again, there have been too many evasions and excuses and circumlocutions for one column. Yale President Peter Salovey didn’t think the question of why Yale has just two veterans was worth much time. Or Columbia, which again proclaimed unquestionable success with “about 300” veterans in its School of General Studies program. (This is separate from its main undergraduate college, Columbia College.) Or Columbia, again, declining to reply to the following questions: “Why can’t veterans get a degree from Columbia College, too?” and “What is the endowment of Columbia College versus the endowment of the School of General Studies?”

Two years ago, Vassar College President Catharine Hill and Posse Foundation founder Debbie Bial created a program to encourage veteran enrollment. Yet of all the COFHE colleges, only Wesleyan University has joined the program so far. Why are so many prestigious schools reluctant to enroll veterans?

“Veterans can’t do the work,” an Ivy League president told me a few years ago. (This was not at a press event or in an interview, so I won’t out the individual.) But many other university administrators begged to differ.

“Generally devaluing the demonstrated abilities of the men and women who commit to national service is as ugly as the coarsest racism, sexism, etc., that presumably this same leader wouldn't be caught dead expressing. For shame,” said Jon Burdick, the University of Rochester’s dean of admissions and financial aid. “Anybody who wants to say that should be required to provide proof—including proof that guiding enrolling veterans to success on their campus would be a greater burden than the significant efforts they voluntarily make in guiding their underrepresented minority students, varsity athletes, and legacy children of major donors.”

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