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Essay: Colleges should create free summer schools for military veterans

More Veterans at Elite Colleges
January 19, 2012

My Veterans Day column established the grim situation with undergraduate veterans at 31 of the nation’s self-proclaimed top colleges and universities: 232* undergraduate veterans. That’s versus 450 at Bunker Hill Community College where I work. (The * is because several didn’t know their undergraduate veteran enrollments.) I promised solutions in my next column. Here goes.  

Starting this summer these 31 colleges, comprising the members-only Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), will run free, ten-week summer schools for 75 veterans each.

Why?  This will create a perpetual pool of qualified veteran applicants. The lack of that qualified pool is the central whispered excuse many selective colleges claim for their low veteran enrollments. (COFHE again declined to reply to my request to present this proposal in person to the next gathering of COFHE mandarins.)

Some good news -- two selective-college presidents have spoken out for veterans. Vassar College President Catharine Bond Hill put the absence of veterans at selective colleges well into the visible-light spectrum with a fine op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer (click here) urging selective colleges to enroll undergraduate veterans. “The United States has been involved in two wars that have resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 American service men and women while wounding more than 45,000,” Hill wrote in urging other selective colleges to enroll undergraduate veterans.  “These burdens have been borne disproportionately by young men and women from low-income families, many of whom enlisted at least partly for economic reasons…. So the least we can do is open our doors to the returning veterans who have enabled the elimination of the draft and military service for most Americans.”

I found, at last, a copy of Harvard president Drew Faust’s inspiring remarks last fall at the first-ever (21st-century) orientation for veterans at Harvard. “Your presence at Harvard marks the beginning of a new chapter in the long and storied history of military service by members of our community,” Faust said.  “We will continue to cultivate an environment in which military service is commemorated and rightly regarded as public service.  And we will provide you with opportunities to reflect on your experiences and apply your leadership skills." 

At these summer schools, veterans would choose two of three three-credit courses: expository writing with a U.S. history focus, statistics, and a lab science. No selective admissions. Take the veterans willing to try this rigorous program. The colleges can commit to 100 percent success and publish results. Will these men and women succeed?  Well, I’m an adjunct with an M.B.A. If I can succeed in teaching such veterans, image what an authentic selective-college professor could achieve. 

The purpose of these programs is to prepare the veterans, mostly enlisted men and women who haven’t been to college, to apply to great colleges. Collaborations are acceptable.

Requirement: The COFHE colleges will finance these summer programs on their own, in gratitude for the nation’s all-volunteer military that permits COFHE students to attend college without required military service. This program cannot deplete the veterans’ Post-9/11 GI Bill funds.  Any COFHE schools claiming lack of funds can send their trustee chairs to explain why, under oath, to Senator Charles Grassley and the U.S Senate Finance Committee. The COFHE colleges can certainly raise funds for this. Why not sweeten the tax break? Say that contributions to support veterans programs are 150 percent deductible from federal income taxes. 

Since my last column I have been on an off-the-record search to find out what, exactly, these selective colleges consider the obstacles to enrolling undergraduate veterans.  I’ve asked selective college presidents, current and retired, trustees and admissions officers.  Summarized and paraphrased, here’s what I found --

1. “Veterans can’t do the work at (selective college). What’s the point admitting students who won’t succeed?”

2. “For years, we haven’t done well integrating minorities and low-income students. Adding veterans is just a new group we can’t handle.” 

3. “We are engines for finding and enrolling 18-22 year old students. We don’t know how to handle others, and they’re not very happy if we do take them.” 

4. “In my X decades in admissions, veterans have never applied. If any wanted to come here, we’d certainly consider them.” 

“Mr. Sloane, I don’t know where to begin responding to that kind of negativity,” said one current Ivy League undergraduate veteran I’ll spare from retribution by leaving as an anonymous source. 

Let’s take these one by one –

1. “Veterans can’t do the work at (selective college).  What’s the point admitting students who won’t succeed?”

Isn’t the question: “How could great colleges help the men and women who have served in wartime be prepared for the best education the U.S. can offer?”

Ask veterans, as I did, if it’s true that veterans can’t do the work.  “These colleges could start by looking at the places where the military has already been highly selective – the Special Forces and the language schools.”  I have passed this suggestion on to selected presidents already.

2. “For years, we haven’t done well integrating minorities and low-income students.  Adding veterans is just a new group we can’t handle.” 

Try harder. Get back to work. Will integrating veterans into these campuses be difficult?  Yes. Will success require new services and skills for all including faculty and, most important, students?  Yes, again. Everyone read Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming by Jonathan Shay.  Why treat The Odyssey, surely part of the curriculum in these colleges, as an academic work? 

3. “We are engines for finding and enrolling 18-22-year-old students.  We don’t know how to handle others, and they’re not very happy if we do take them.” 

Easy. Add to the Common Application this question: “In an essay of 250 words, please demonstrate that you have the maturity and curiosity to support the veterans and nontraditional students who will be your classmates. Pack the essay with evidence of your success already in working with these groups.”  For the wrong reasons, I know, thousands of ladles will clatter to the floor as community-serving high school students flee soup kitchens to aid veterans.

4. “In my X decades in admissions, veterans have never applied.  If any wanted to come here, we’d certainly consider them.” 

Fire this admissions director and all others who limit selection to applicants already in the pool. Selective colleges have substantial recruiting and travel budgets. Start visiting military bases. A current COFHE school veteran had this suggestion:  “Make recruiting veterans a priority.” 

Take a page from a hero of mine, Rick Mahoney, for decades the director of financial aid at Phillips Exeter Academy. He would visit any school, community center, church, temple, anywhere he could find a student. This, he believed, was his and the school’s mission –- creating an educated citizenry, period.  “I don’t know if Exeter is the place for you,” I heard him say on dozens of visits we made together. “I just want you to know of every possibility to take charge of your education.  I want you know how to find the opportunities out there for you.  If Exeter is not the place for you, I’ll do all I can to help you find the place for you.”  He did just that. For decades. 

O.K. That solves the obstacles. 

How about the summer school proposal? Possible? I’ve heard, “We’re already booked with hockey and tennis camps. We don’t have any room.” 

Put some tents on platforms and set up some Quonset huts -- for the hockey players. These same colleges rapidly expanded enrollment to accommodate the World War II GI Bill veterans. Wouldn’t a rapid response to an actual national problem be a, well, good educational exercise for top colleges? In the summer after the 2008 economic crash already-impoverished community colleges absorbed thousands of new students.

Long-term funding for the summer programs? Again, easy.  

Let the development folks go forth. Here’s the start of a list of alumni and selective-college-affiliated deep pockets craving a positive legacy. Princeton: Donald Rumsfeld. Yale: the Bushes, L. Paul Bremer, John Bolton. Harvard: Henry Kissinger. Stanford: Condoleezza Rice. Wellesley: Hillary Clinton. More than enough to endow robust summer programs.

I’ll close with public affirmation  of a pledge I made to an Ivy League president while researching these columns: if that college will commit to a veterans program this summer, I’ll find 50 veterans.

And I will.

Bio

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed.

 

 

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