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.

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.”

“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.

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.”

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