At California State University this fall, five slots per campus will be reserved for active duty or veteran service members guaranteed admission on the basis of their commanders’ recommendations.
“We’re not second-guessing the recommendations. We’re taking them,” said Allison G. Jones, assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs and student academic support for the CSU system.
“On their say so, on the assumption that [recommended students] have the necessary previous work completed, we would simply accept these people as a tribute to what our countrymen and -women are doing, as well as out of respect for the integrity of the commander,” said Richard R. Rush, president of CSU Channel Islands.
“We’re trying to cut through the normal process and reach out aggressively to these individuals so we can offer them opportunity, access and support," Rush said.
In total, 115 such spots are reserved across the 23 campuses, although Jones expects that only about 50 or 60 will be filled this fall for the first year of the CSU Troops to College Admission Program (Troops to College  is a broader statewide initiative). Many colleges are considering how to better reach out to veterans with a new and expanded GI Bill  on the horizon. But few work so closely with the military command -- or defer to its judgment on academic matters.
Under the special admissions program, selection criteria are set by commanders in the respective services (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, National Guard and Navy), constituting a transfer of authority over admissions functions -- a trust of sorts -- that is unusual in higher education.
The new systemwide initiative had its start on a local level at San Diego State University through an agreement with Maj. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, Commanding General of Marine Corps Installations West. San Diego State admitted three recent Marine Corps veterans through this mechanism last fall and another three this spring.
“Through the military chain of command, be it Navy or Marine Corps, etc., the names are nominated,” explained Frank Roberts, director of prospective student services at San Diego State. He said the university does screen the nominees to check for red flags. They haven’t spotted any -- “Thankfully, because I know the military, especially General Lehnert’s office, does a very, very meticulous screening. …There was some very careful thought not only to the talent and motivation of these young men and women but also to a certain degree, their academic background.”
General Lehnert said in an interview that the Marine Corps sent 10 candidates' names to CSU for 2009. A total of 30 of the 115 available slots were reserved for Marines. “We probably could have sent a couple more but we think it’s extraordinarily important that every one of these candidates be the best possible students that we can find,” the general said.
“What I was looking for in terms of their academic potential, I was looking for what’s called fire in the belly.”
A January Marine Corps memo  outlines eligibility and application requirements for the special admissions program to CSU. To be eligible, Marines needed a minimum combined math and reading SAT score of 1,000 or a 22 on the ACT -- or a minimum of 74 on the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) and 115 on the GT (the military's General Technical test). A high school diploma was required (GEDs will not be considered for the fall 2009 cycle), and would-be CSU students had to submit a number of military records, unofficial high school transcripts, and a personal essay.
According to the memo, “Commanding officers will convene a board to screen each applicant to evaluate the applicant’s potential for successful completion of college. The commander’s endorsement will be similar in content to that required in a Marine Corps fitness report, such as detailing the Marine's demonstrated performance, potential for growth, and/or successful completion of a college degree program.”
General Lehnert said he's in a position to help civilians assess the applicability of military training. “One of the challenges that admissions officers often have is, ‘How do you evaluate four years of military experience, often much of it in combat?’ ” General Lehnert asked. “How do you do that, particularly if you have no experience in that yourself?”
Those recruited through the special admissions program would be paying students. But veterans would get their resident tuition at CSU campuses covered, plus a housing and book stipend, under the new GI Bill, set to go into effect this August. Of the 10 Marines recommended for admission, three are remaining in the service and will study on the Marine Corps’ dime, as part of the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program.
CSU’s systemwide Academic Senate has not vetted the special admissions program, according to its chair and a CSU Bakersfield faculty member, John Tarjan.