What Admissions Officers Know (and Don't Know) About Military Service

A problem, some solutions -- and a quiz.

November 6, 2017

For the past four years, Wick Sloane has published on Inside Higher Ed the number of student veterans enrolled at the country's most selective colleges and universities. At the 36 colleges analyzed by Sloane in 2016, there were a total of 641 student veterans, 375 of whom were enrolled at Columbia's School of General Studies. If Columbia's student veterans are subtracted from Sloane's total, there were an average of 7.6 student veterans at the remaining 35 institutions. Several colleges had no student veterans.

At our own institution, the enrollment of undergraduate veterans dropped from 16 in 2016 to 12 in 2017. The low number of student veterans at the country's most selective colleges caused us to think about the reasons for this.

The thing that makes selective colleges selective is, well, their selectivity. Veterans applying for college admission are usually former enlisted members of the military, whereas veterans applying to graduate schools are typically college graduates and former officers.

Many of those who enlist in the military do so in part because they were not interested and/or did not do well in high school or community college. Additionally, many veterans come from low-income families where higher education may seem difficult or impossible to achieve, and few, if any family members can mentor them through the application process. As a result, when they apply for admission to college following their military service, their academic records are often weak relative to other applicants right out of high school. However, service in the military adds value to applicants that often is not recognized by admissions officers.

For example, several years ago, an older student came to my office for academic counseling, and he identified himself as a veteran. I asked him in which branch he had served, and he said he had been in the Marines. I then asked what he had done in the Marines, and he said that he had been in Marine Recon. Having served in the Navy, I knew that this was the special operations division of the Marines -- the elite of the elite. I praised his service, and he smiled sheepishly and told me that I was the first person at Pepperdine to even know what Marine Recon was.

This raised a significant problem in my mind; namely, few admissions staff members have a background in the military. Most do not have, therefore, much if any knowledge of what an applicant does in the military.

To assess the level of knowledge of admissions officers, a current student veteran and I developed a brief test based on the backgrounds of current or former student veterans at Pepperdine. Based on our interaction with admissions staff, we suspect that most who take this test would not score more than 50 percent, an F on my typical grading scale.

The significance of this is that admissions officers reading over a veteran's application most likely would not know the level of responsibility or function of what that applicant did in the military. For example, one veteran identified herself as a crew chief of a C-130, a person responsible for preparing a $30 million cargo plane and its crew for takeoff as well as its maintenance. Another veteran identified himself as a hospital corpsman. Not many people would infer that he had performed life-saving interventions in emergency situations and that he had even taught various specialized medical procedures to other medical professionals.

What can be done to fix this problem? It would be too labor-intensive and inefficient to train admissions officers or staff about the military; however, applications from veterans could be reviewed by a faculty or staff veteran who would have a better idea of what a veteran applicant had done in their military service.

In addition, many colleges have special admissions committees to review the below-par records of some applicants -- athletes, for example. These are students who potentially may contribute to the college. Veterans, however, are those who have volunteered to risk and if necessary to give their lives for their fellow citizens. In short, they have already contributed to the greater public good. Don't they deserve special consideration?

It is easy for individuals to say to members of the military or veterans, "thank you for your service." Institutions, however, can and should do better by evaluating what veterans applying to colleges have done in the military and not just relying on their often deficient high school transcripts. If this were done, perhaps the woefully small number of student veterans at the country's most selective colleges would justifiably increase.

A Quiz on Military Applicants

We have written this quiz to see how familiar admissions staff members are with the background and military terminology that applicants who are in the military or are veterans may use in their applications. These examples are taken from the background of either current or recent student veterans at Pepperdine.

1. Someone who identifies her- or himself as a corpsman is a:
a. member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
b. member of the U.S. Marine Corps
c. a Navy medical staff member
d. a member of the U.S. Air Force drill team

2. A decoration given for demonstrated courage in combat is the:
a. Navy Achievement Medal
b. Bronze Star
c. National Defense Service Ribbon
d. Army-Navy-Marine Corps-Air Force Combat Award

3. If someone identifies as a member of MARSOC, they are a member of:
a. the Army special forces
b. Multiservice office of supplies and operations
c. Mutual armored forces command
d. Marine special forces

4. Which of the following is a noncommissioned Officer in the Army, Air Force and Marines?
a. Sergeant
b. Private
c. Lieutenant
d. Corporal

5. Which of the following is the Navy's special forces group?
a. Delta Force
b. SEALs
d. Special Tactic Squadron

6. If an applicant identifies her- or himself as a chief petty officer, that person is in the:
a. Army
b. Air Force
c. Marines
d. Navy

7. Someone indicates that they were a crew chief on a C-130. That person was responsible for:
a. the rowing team at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.
b. organizing the sailors on the USS Decatur (U.S. Navy cruiser, #130)
c. driving a C-130 armored personnel carrier in the Army or Marines
d. the maintenance on a squadron's aircraft and preparing a plane for launch

8. If someone in the military tells you they are a grunt, they are:
a. A gunner responsible for firing the General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger, a 30-millimeter hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-type auto-cannon that is typically mounted in the United States Air Force's Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the A-10 Warthog. This gun makes a grunt-like noise then fired, hence the name "grunt."
b. Sworn to an oath of silence in honor of their fallen comrades. They will only grunt when spoken to. This usually lasts for one year, but can be longer.
c. An infantry soldier or U.S. Marine, especially in the Vietnam War.
d. Someone who makes excessively loud noises in the gym, especially when doing squats and dead lifts. This is not a compliment.

9. What percentage of the U.S. population is currently serving in the U.S. military?
a. Less than 1 percent
b. Less than 11 percent
c. Less than 22 percent
d. Less than 33 percent

10. Complete the following statement: Veterans of the U.S. armed forces are _____
a. Violent and dangerous with little provocation.
b. All from rural areas.
c. Mostly homeless.
d. Citizens and noncitizens of the U.S.

Answers to the quiz: (1) c, (2) b, (3) d, (4) a, (5) b, (6) d, (7) d, (8) c, (9) a, (10) d


Dan Caldwell is distinguished professor of political science at Pepperdine University and the founding chair of the Pepperdine Committee on Student Veterans. Andrew Shute is an undergraduate student majoring in biology. Both are veterans of the U.S. Navy.

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