Veterans at the Elites

Most veterans know what it means to be a leader.  They have the organizational skills, team spirit, experience under stress while remaining mindful of dire consequences, excellent work ethic, and of course, unrivaled real world experiences that allow them to excel on and off the battlefield. Why then are so few undergraduate Ivy League seats occupied by US military veterans?

In fall of 2010 there were 256,391 veterans in college around the U.S. but only a handful in Ivy League schools. According to an article by Wick Sloane in Inside Higher Ed, Princeton has no undergraduate veterans and Harvard and Yale have only two. The premier liberal arts college, Williams, also has none.

Richard Nesbitt, Director of Admissions at Williams, explained why his liberal arts college has no veterans. “Veterans prefer pre-professional courses which include—technical, engineering, or  business which we don’t have at Williams.” Many veterans use their GI Bill benefits to enroll in community colleges and for-profit colleges offering career training, something they cannot always get at schools with a liberal arts focus.

In response to this pre-professional idea, Wick Sloane, a professor at a community college in Boston and the author of the original article about veteran enrollment, claims that it is patronizing for colleges to use that as a defense. Nesbitt was quick to point out that top colleges have veterans from other countries where there is a mandatory service program. Moreover, Stanford University, not a bastion of pre-professional programs, boasts 21 undergraduate veterans.

“It is also a matter of location and financial aid programs,” said Stanford’s Director of Admissions Bob Patterson. According to him, there are a lot more military veterans in California than in, say, Massachusetts. And Stanford’s unrivaled financial aid allows many veterans to take the leap.

But all of the schools stress the importance of the applicant’s merit in their decision-making process, something that can often make it difficult for veterans. Ivy League schools seek top academic credentials from all applicants, be them veterans or civil students. “We are definitely interested in strong veteran students,” said Nesbitt.  Patterson confirmed this, saying, “We comprehensively examine the applications—experience and academic qualifications.” But Sloane offers a caveat to the merit argument, saying that “veterans will not arrive on campus perfect; it will take a lot of work for them to succeed.”

Another common excuse for small or absent veteran populations is that schools lack a supportive student body with a critical mass of students at the veterans’ ages, older than a typical undergraduate in the age group of 18-22.

Sloane remains unconvinced by this argument though. He references earlier wars that saw the return of large numbers of veterans seeking a college education. “The idea that the age gap is an excuse is a bad one. We should not have started the wars if we did not want to accommodate the veterans. If everything about the age disparity were true, then in the end of WWII the colleges adapted to take veterans that were much older. They educated thousands and thousands of people. The option was made clearly available to returning veterans.”

For some, the benefit of having veterans is clear. Sloane poses the question, “from a teaching perspective, if you think you provide one of the best educations in the world, how can you miss a chance to have these young men and women in the classroom?”

While at this point, some colleges are content with a passive approach, others are actively reaching out to the veteran community and facilitating their re-entry into the classrooms. Stanford has an informative website dedicated to veterans and has been successful in attracting an increasing number, especially in its graduate school programs. The Stanford Law School Class of 2013 has about twice as many military veterans as did the class before it, an increase from four to eight in a class of only 170. Similar gains can be seen in the first-year class at the Graduate School of Business.

Others like Williams are investigating a more direct approach. “We are talking to marine corps veterans as part of [our] leadership scholar program,” said Nesbitt. The program is at a discussion stage and is being developed to help identify high ability veterans interested in a liberal arts college. Although no agreement has been signed yet, this structured approach to identifying the “right fit” veterans would go a long way in ensuring that they stay in the classrooms even after the first quarter.  If adopted by other schools, this approach could lead to a healthy veteran community in colleges like Princeton or Harvard.

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