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Backward, not forward, for veterans at elite colleges (essay)

Veterans Day 2012

November 12, 2012

Here’s what I am stunned to report this year: The total number of undergraduate veterans reported by the nation’s most selective colleges and universities has dropped from 232* to 174*.  The * is for those who don’t know the answer or who don’t care to reply. This is versus 485 veterans at Bunker Hill Community College, where I work.

Once again, for Veterans Day, I surveyed the 31 self-selected highly selective colleges and universities in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education  (COFHE). At the top of the list this year are Johns Hopkins with 32; Georgetown and Rice at 27; University of Rochester at 16; Dartmouth at 15; and Stanford at 14. Columbia reports 247 undergraduates in its School of General Studies. (Note: This essay has been updated from an earlier version to correct information -- in this paragraph and elsewhere -- about veterans at Georgetown.)

Reported Veterans in Undergraduate Programs, 2012  
Amherst College 5
Barnard College 0
Brown University 7
Bryn Mawr College 1
Carleton College  
Columbia University  
Cornell  
Dartmouth College 15
Duke University 1
Georgetown 27
Harvard University  
Johns Hopkins University 32
MIT 2
Mount Holyoke College 1
Northwestern University  
Oberlin College  
Pomona College  
Princeton University 1
Rice University 27
Smith College 0
Stanford University 14
Swarthmore College 0
Trinity College 5
University of Chicago  
University of Pennsylvania  
University of Rochester 16
Washington U. in St. Louis 13
Wellesley College 2
Wesleyan University 5
Williams College 0
Yale University  
Total 174

Blank cells mean institutions did not respond.

 

One (1) is the number of undergraduate veterans at Princeton in this annual survey of undergraduate veterans enrolled in the nation’s self-described most highly selective colleges.  Last year at Princeton? Two (2). Yale won’t reply. Harvard is counting. My first inquiries to Harvard went to a spam filter. Harvard reaches out to veterans in many ways, and ending up in spam is a frequent hazard as one of the nation’s leading obscure columnists. 

Williams, the perennial number-one liberal arts college in the U.S. News rankings, remains dug in at zero. Trustees there continued to respond with withering disdain for an alumnus, me, who keeps asking. At Amherst College, the number rose from three to five, and Amherst reports four endowed scholarships. Wesleyan University, the third of the Little Three, looks for veterans at Connecticut community colleges and remains at five undergraduate veterans.

So what? Call me crazy. A highly selective education ought to teach students to look beyond myth and spin, half-truths and outright lies? In a speech at Bunker Hill Community College a few years ago, Ken Burns explained that he had produced his documentary "The War " on WWII because people -- citizens and politicians -- keep forgetting the costs of wars. And then starting new wars. This weekend,  I asked Burns what he thought of the situation at top U.S. colleges. 

"It is such a tragedy that the country that has such a devastatingly convenient amnesia about the true cost and horror of all wars, an amnesia that permits us to recommit to fighting them, however wrongly, over and over again, also forgets its warriors after they've come home and the superficial political speeches have been made and the syrupy sunshine patriotism is displayed," Burns said. "They deserve more than this superficial acknowledgement, just as we deserve politicians who understand the horrible arithmetic of war before they vote to send our children there."

These numbers from selective colleges are at odds with the growing national trend of returning U.S. veterans entering college. 

 

FY 09

FY10

FY11

All federal GI Bill education beneficiaries

564,487

800,369

923,836

Post-9/11 GI Bill only

34,393

365,640

559,329

Source: American Council on Education

These numbers include graduate students.  As an estimate, assuming that most of the Post-9/11 recipients were enlisted men and women, not officers, who had not begun college, then two-thirds (conservative) of 559,329 are undergraduates.  That’s 369,163. After an election about the one percent, I’ll tighten the measure for these selective colleges, and take 0.05 percent of 369,163 as a proxy of how many veterans might qualify for admission. That’s 1,845. This is versus the reported total this year of 157.

What’s going on? With a few worthy exceptions that I’ll detail, the new category in reporting for these colleges is “Don’t Know. Don’t Care.”  My assessment arises from several situations. First is the difficulty so many COFHE schools have in just finding a number.  Second is a simple accounting issue that continues to confound those reporting numbers. I have no evidence of intentional misrepresentation. The overwhelming evidence is that these colleges just don’t care how many undergraduate veterans are enrolled. Last year’s total, reported without objection from any colleges, appears to have included for several colleges the total number of students, including dependents, receiving GI Bill benefits versus the actual veterans.

As far as a registrar is concerned, students appear as being on the G.I. Bill or not. These can be veterans or dependents of veterans, who can use the G.I. Bill benefits. The first number reported is often the total using the G.I. Bill. This year, Yale reported nine undergraduates receiving G.I. Bill benefits. The Yale news office has declined to clarify how many are veterans. Yale President Rick Levin and Yale Corporation Fellow Neal Keny-Guyer have declined to reply to my requests for clarification. (Keny-Guyer because he is the poster child of compassion for my school, Yale School of Management, for his impressive work as chief of Mercy Corps.)

Cornell reported 53 undergraduates on G.I. Bill benefits and left it to me to guess the number of veterans. Duke this year reported 38 undergraduates receiving VA benefits.  A kind Duke staffer was unable to clarify by press time.  Someone else at Duke reported to COFHE that Duke has one undergraduate veteran. 

All I know is that institutions, companies and colleges, have at the ready the numbers that presidents and chief executive officers consider important. 

To avoid the charge that the press obsesses on the negative only, here are the welcome highlights from the 2012 survey. 

  • Rice University, which I failed to connect with last year, reports 27 undergraduate veterans.  Without my asking, Rice also reported 95 faculty/staff veterans. 
  •  At University of Rochester, with 16 undergraduate veterans, Jon Burdick, dean of admissions, again leads in looking for veterans.  “We’re not attracting that many veterans, not for lack of trying,” Burdick said this year.  “With Yellow Ribbon, we’re giving a blank check to veterans and their dependents.  If we are turning down any veteran applicants, it’s only those whose struggle here is just not possible. Those who ‘might’ struggle we’re bringing in and supporting.” 
  • Vassar College, not a COFHE school, and the Posse Foundation have joined to created a program for veterans. Vassar will enroll 10 in 2013. Vassar President Catharine Hill’s essay “Veterans Deserve More from Higher Education” in The Huffington Post is worth a click.  Posse plans to expand to its 44 partner colleges.   (Disclosure:  As a citizen trying to fix this mess, I have had many conversations about this program with Catharine Hill and Posse founder Debbie Bial.)
  • At Georgetown 10 enrolled as transfers, and 83 veterans applied to transfer, according to David Shearman, Veterans Office Coordinator.  "We work very hard to make sure we are attracting veterans to campus and that we take care of them once they're here," he said.
  • Wesleyan reported to COFHE, who shared with me, that two alumni, Frank Sica ’73 and Jonathan Soros ’92, have endowed need-based scholarships for veterans and their families.  According to Wesleyan, Soros said, “For many at a liberal arts college, interacting with the men and women of the military is not part of the experience.  I see a real educational opportunity in which veterans benefit from a liberal arts education, and the community benefits by learning from people of difference backgrounds and by confronting realities they wouldn’t otherwise directly encounter.” 
  • Harvard last year had 334 students veterans - 176 at the Extension School and 158 across the rest of the university.  Again this fall, Harvard had a campus-wide orientation session and reception to welcome veterans.  And two more Bunker Hill Community College students are working in the Harvard bioengineering labs of Professor Kit Parker, a U.S. Army officer who is a two-time Afghanistan veteran. 

So, once again I’ve been through these facts over and over and over for more than a week.  Screaming outrage is worthy motivation but poor reading.  My patient editor is out of patience.  I have a book’s worth more to say.  Time to file.   I’m not going to let the colleges re-report last year’s numbers.  I’ll pray that next year all the numbers will be correct the first time. 

O.K.  So what? 

Here’s a discussion I commend to any classroom, community college and Ivy League.  I have my students read the Constitution.  I have veterans in the class describe their experience, in Iraq and Afghanistan and back home.  In one section, a veteran, Tim, who had been back for more than a year, said his wife still wouldn’t let him drive their car.  If he saw a soda can or a pieces of trash on the road, he told us, he’d swerve, often into the left lane.  That was his reaction from the roadside bombs in Iraq.  Another student, Jon, had been blown up by an IED and blind for a year before returning to home and college.  “That hiss of the brakes on the Commuter Rail sounds just like a rocket-propelled grenade coming at you,” he said.  “All these people around me are just reading the paper, and I am about to dive to the floor of the train. The hiss on the subway, the MBTA, doesn’t sound that way. Just on the Commuter Rail.” 

“Why did we do this to Jon and Tim?  Why did we put them through these experiences?” I asked the class.  Ensuring that discussion in every class is the job of a higher education. 

Dulce at Decorum Est

By Wilfred Owen

DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4) 
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12) 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13) 
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)

Wilfred Owen

8 October 1917 - March, 1918

Bio

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter @WickSloane

 

 

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