How the Rhodes Scholarship is Biased Against Veterans

Around Veterans Day, there are many ways in which we can thank the men and women in service at home and around the world. Remembering that choosing a military life has its costs, and that it is our job as a nation to compensate them for these costs, is one of them. Recently, research conducted by the Center for a New American Security found that a war veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Homelessness amongst veterans is also sadly a very common problem. But  there is another way in which we are being unfair to those who have served in our nation’s military, one that you probably have not thought of: veterans are practically incapable of applying for the Rhodes scholarship.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mitchell Reiss, president of Washington College, points out that due to an age restriction of 24 and under, almost nobody who has taken time off to serve in the military can apply for this prestigious opportunity. This age restriction varies between the 14 countries that can nominate candidates for the Rhodes scholarship, but it is capped at 24 in the United States. If you are of the opinion that servicepersons are not as intellectually motivated to pursue such a scholarship in the first place, think again.

Meet Jim Schelberg, a senior at Washington College double-majoring in Humanities and Philosophy. Reiss shared Jim’s story in his opinion article. According to him, Jim has a near perfect GPA and has taught himself Latin and Greek. He has also set up a program called “Partners in Philosophy,” that aims to educate prisoners at the Maryland state penitentiary. Jim served as a gunner for the United States Marine Corps in Iraq before going to college, and got called back to Afghanistan after his sophomore year, where he earned a medal for superior performance. With this almost unbelievable resume, Jim is an ideal candidate for a scholarship that matches intellectual prowess with leadership and direction, such as the Rhodes. Being able to study at Oxford is also the perfect opportunity for someone with intellectual predilections such as his. Here’s the catch: Jim’s 26.

Jim Schelberg is no anomaly. At Stanford, we have had some incredible individuals pass through our arcades with equal merits in academia and service. Every year Stanford’s student body includes some of the finest young academics in this nation, impeded from applying for the Rhodes because they also decided to serve their country before or during college. All across the country, there are 200,000 veterans entering college as freshmen every year under the post 9/11 G.I. Bill. The time has come for us to let them know that they too can pursue the same  prestige and high levels in academics that are available to civilians.

It is not just the Rhodes scholarship that has these biased age restrictions. Similar limitations exist in the Marshall and Winston Churchill scholarships, making it three of the highest academic opportunities that marginalize veterans.

But why cannot those with both academic and service aspirations simply go through schooling and then join the military, like in the good old days? Well, the United States military is no longer a peacetime standing organization. Sept 11 changed all of that. The event itself compelled many young citizens to serve their country at a time when their service was needed the most.

As the wars continue, with no real foreseeable end, America still needs men and women serving in our defense. Even if and when these wars come to a draw down, enemy attacks on the scale of 9/11 had not happened on home turf since World War II. The dynamics of defense have changed, and we are constantly on high alert. On top of all of this, we no longer draft our citizens. Therefore, the conscious choice of someone who wants to serve his country, even though he has other aspirations, should not be punished. In fact, it should be rewarded with at least the assurance that those other aspirations can still be met once his term comes to an end.

Although the Rhodes and similar scholarships are run by private organizations, it is still true that such ageism is against the education philosophy and morals of the United States. The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits any discrimination based on a student’s age, for school and college programs that receive funds from the Department of Education. The only exception to this rule is student employment (where restrictions are placed to eliminate child labor and ensure students are not employed unfairly).

The United States does not tolerate ageism in academic programs. So why should it tolerate campus opportunities that clearly practice such ageism, and therefore exclude students whose only disqualifying factor is that they put nation before self, but have completed service and now want to pursue other dreams?

Elliot Gerson, the American secretary for the Rhodes Trust, has said that although he had twice proposed raising the age limit, it had fallen on deaf ears. Although countries can propose changes, approval comes from the Trust itself. He has also admitted that this age question is not high on his agenda.

Since making the Rhodes scholarship co-ed in the 1970’s, the Trust has worked to eliminate discrimination. Right now, it does not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or basically anything else. But it is an ageist institution, and this needs to change. If nothing else, it needs to change for those young men and women who have sacrificed so much of their lives to serve their country- a service that basically excludes the pursuit of pretty much anything else, including schooling during active duty. While veterans have a lot to add to the intellectual community, this article simply advocates the equality of opportunity that they deserve.

Jim Schelberg could have applied for the Rhodes had he gone to school in Ghana, where the maximum age for application is 27. What is the United States waiting for?

Nadiv Rahman ’13 is a Political Science major at Stanford, and Opinion Editor of the Stanford Review. Please feel free to email him with any questions or comments at

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