A nation at war? President Obama dispatching 1,500 more troops to Iraq and bombing Syria? Yet again, the nation’s most selective colleges, with a couple of exceptions, prefer to look the other way.
From the top: Williams, U.S. News's top liberal arts college, undergraduate veterans enrolled? Zero.
Princeton: One. Yale: Three. Harvard: Four.
Duke – with how many trainers, tutors, and dieticians for how many Division I athletes? – one.
Cornell, one undergraduate veteran last year, would only reply that no one was available to answer our questions. Swarthmore, a college with Quaker, anti-war, peace-seeking roots, and zero undergraduate veterans last year, didn’t reply at all to requests this year.
So what? Many commenters last year challenged the relevance of veterans or not at selective colleges.
So what? Many alumni from selective colleges, and not community colleges, end up in the senior executive branch and legislative offices that are sending men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t the men and women who volunteer for the military before college enable the high SAT, 5-AP exam, practically perfect in every way selective-college students to go to school without interruption? Wouldn’t these students themselves champion sharing their classrooms with veterans? My craziest reason is the simple moral obligation of us all to support the men and women we send to war.
Look at the numbers. The total undergraduate enrollment of the 31 colleges surveyed, the self-selected members of the Consortium for the Financing of Higher Education, COFHE, is about 118,000. And barely 600 spots for the men and women who volunteered to go to war since 9/11? What will COFHE graduates know of war?
So what? Moments into any gathering of one or more U.S. higher education leaders, one of them will crow that the U.S. higher education system is the envy of the world. O.K., to modify the famous Prussian military strategist, Clausewitz, let’s call war “the failure to solve a problem by other means.” Why, then, can’t the graduates of the best higher ed system in the world solve problems without sending other people’s children to wars costing trillions of dollars that are unavailable for social services and, yes, education?
Can any college beat Yale? Alumni from Yale – George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Jerry Bremer, Scooter Libby – failed at the History 101 skill of evaluating sources and sent the nation to war over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. To support their father and set an example, did the Bush twins enlist? Remember, during Vietnam, Harvard graduate Al Gore enlisted and served in Vietnam to support his father, U.S. Senator Al Gore Sr., who opposed the Vietnam war.
This year, the survey adds in the 360 undergraduate veterans at Columbia, who are in the School of General Studies, for a COFHE total of 596. The 2013 total, without Columbia, was 180*. The 2014 total, net of Columbia, is 174*. The * is because some don’t report and some know only estimates.
This higher total does not mean 360 more undergraduate veterans are in COFHE schools this fall. For this column, Columbia’s success will not outshine the sorry performance of selective colleges over all. I’ll cover Columbia’s program in a separate column. (Click here for a copy of Columbia’s full reply this year.)
In previous reports, I had excluded veterans in General Studies programs. After years of no movement at so many COFHE schools, I have changed my mind. Columbia has found a way through the academic minefields to do more for more undergraduate veterans than the rest of the COFHE schools combined. I was wrong in years past to exclude Columbia, and I apologize to those at Columbia who felt I was diminishing either their achievements as veterans or their work, as faculty and staff, on behalf of veterans.
The overall numbers continue as grim, pitiful, sad, hard to comprehend. My frame of reference? The 473 (most recent count) veterans at Bunker Hill Community College, where I work. As grim is how many colleges just don’t want to discuss the situation.
The University of Pennsylvania reported 35 undergraduate veterans and answered none of the other questions. Thirty-five is great. How did Penn achieve this? Why?
I was looking for ideas to spread. “Wick: Sorry, but I’m not going to be able to provide more,” said Stephen J. McCarthy, vice president for university communications at Penn.
I’ll start with the positive. Georgetown, the highest, reports 81 total undergraduate veterans, 392 graduate student veterans, and 84 spouses or dependents of veterans using GI Bill benefits.
“Georgetown has a full-time veterans office on campus to support student veterans,” said David Shearman, Georgetown Veterans Coordinator. “The veterans office includes university staff and current student veterans who can share their experience with prospective student veterans.”
Georgetown services for veterans includes support on GI Bill and health benefits, faculty and staff training on working with veterans, and, since 2010, a Veterans Support Team of deans, faculty, administrators and students who meet regularly to review campus needs and programs. The Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy had a Public Issues Forum entitled "Changing the Conversation: Capitalizing on the Strengths of Veterans Here at Home." (Click here for a link to the white paper and a video of the forum.)
Other highs are Washington University in St. Louis, 21; and 19 each at Johns Hopkins University and Northwestern. An active-duty Navy SEAL made the 2014 Northwestern football team (click here).
To the good, Wesleyan added 10 undergraduate veterans as part of the Posse Veterans program. Stanford added an 11-student free veterans program to its summer school last summer, Stanford 2 to 4: A Veterans Accelerator (inspired by a January 2012 Devil’s Workshop column). Stanford also expanded its office of military-affiliated communities. (More on emerging veteran summer programs in a later column.)
To the good, Wellesley, a women’s college, reported two veterans and six in ROTC. Mount Holyoke has two veterans. Given that fewer women are in the military, the results from these women’s colleges are spectacular.
In response to complaints from colleges last year that reporting only undergraduate veteran enrollment was insufficient, the survey expanded to include whatever the colleges wanted to report, plus information on admissions recruiting, ROTC, active-duty students, and the number of alumni who have served or been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Click here to see the survey questions.) Few colleges offered much additional information.
To the good, Johns Hopkins and Amherst reported knowledge of alumni who had served or been killed or wounded since 9/11. Amherst reported 90 alumni had served with one killed.
Johns Hopkins reported two alumni killed in the Army in Iraq; one alumna Foreign Service officer; and one alumna who was a civilian contractor. For admissions and recruiting veterans, no one replied to a question about the total number of recruiting visits each year versus the number of visits specifically for veterans. To the good, the associate dean of admissions at Amherst is responsible for veterans. Williams and Yale described recruiting strategies aimed more at proving veterans were not excluded than at actually recruiting veterans.
At MIT, with zero veterans, Admissions Dean Stuart Schmill expressed responsibility for the so-far poor results. MIT also has an admissions officer whose job description includes veteran recruitment.
“We have been increasing what we are doing to recruit and support veterans, but have not yet had the tangible success we hope to,” said Schmill. “We do have a plan to continue to increase our outreach, and are hoping for some success soon.”
Many colleges continue to work with the excellent Marine Corps Leadership Scholar Program, which links Marines leaving the service with colleges. That program can only convey what a college offers. If a college has few to no veterans and no services for veterans, why would a veteran choose that college?
COFHE schools with few to no veterans, no veterans services, and no particular outreach to veterans continue to express surprise that veterans are not applying.
Would those baffled colleges go recruiting football players if their college lacked a a football field? Further, would they be surprised if the players did not come?
The survey and other reporting this year year brought more information than a single column can contain. Future columns will consider the Columbia program; summer programs where veterans are demonstrating high academic ability; the continued and puzzling resistance by selective colleges to the Posse Foundation Veterans Program; and, in the absence of graduation rate data for the GI Bill, surveys asking individual college for their own reports.
Reported Undergraduate Veterans in Regular Degree Program
We have been hearing about how various women’s colleges are responding to the challenges presented by the way in which gender is currently evolving in our society and culture. The question facing women’s colleges should be distinguished from the general matter of civil rights that transgender people should expect and the respect they should enjoy from fellow members of society. It has to do specifically with whether an institution believes itself to have a continuing mission as a women’s college.
There are different forms of transgenderism, among them being those biological/legal males who identify as women; biological/legal women who identify as men; and those who, for various reasons and in various ways, do not feel themselves to fit within a two-gender system at all.
Of these different categories, the one that women’s colleges would seem to have the most compelling need to address is that of persons who are legally male as identified by our society (based on biology/anatomy), but who feel themselves to be women and wish to be considered as such. One can well understand why a women’s college would want to be open to them. Here the question is what admissions criteria a college may use so as to preserve the institution as a women’s college while admitting these students. Legal advice will surely be useful in this context.
It is also fitting and proper – as well as being generally the case – that women’s colleges support individual students who enter as women in the terms defined by our society and subsequently find themselves on a different gender journey. They should feel welcome, receive the support they may need through the remainder of their time at the college, and be received happily among the institution’s alums.
Beyond that, it is less clear why a women’s college should feel the need or the responsibility to make institutional adaptations to the general category of biological/anatomical women who already self-identify as men by the time they apply to college. While there is no legal basis for denying admission to such students, one well might question their expectation that a women’s college should make a variety of special adaptations to them as a subgroup of the student body. Insofar as transgenderism involves taking a less biologically fundamentalist approach to gender, then why would one emphasize the difference between a biological male and a transman (i.e., a biological female who self-identifies as male)? And why would a women’s college make the kind of adaptation to transmen that it would not make to men who have come by that status in a more traditional way?
If, indeed, the goal is to take less of a biologically fundamentalist approach to gender, then one would think an appropriate response to such students would be encouraging them to apply to some destination other than a women’s college to pursue their higher education. A similar point might be made for young people who do not want such categories as “women” and “men” to apply to them at all.
Some transmen who apply to women’s colleges have said that they do so because these are places where they would feel safe. This raises the question of what it takes these days to make students feel “safe” and whether the lengths to which colleges tend to go in that project – the many “safe” spaces that have been popping up on campuses for various special groups – do more to enhance a sense of vulnerability than to make young people stronger. It is hard to imagine that transgender students would be in greater danger at a place like Hampshire, Bard, Wesleyan, Antioch, Macalester or any number of institutions especially known for their open attitudes to culture change than at Wellesley or Mount Holyoke.
Unless, of course, they were buying into some familiar gender stereotypes, which would seem to be the case for women’s colleges themselves if they were to assert that they are uniquely qualified to welcome transgender students. Women’s colleges might argue that, having dealt with one stigmatized and disadvantaged group, they are well-situated to deal with another. But, just as women’s colleges do not and would not want to corner the market on feminists, so they do not and should not want to corner the market on those able to understand and accept transgenderism. Moreover, it is not as if women’s colleges hold some kind of privileged place in the world of higher education or operate as special paths to social privilege, as men’s colleges did once upon a time.
In brief, it would be reasonable and understandable for a women’s college to decide that gender as a basis for admission and for participation in the life of the institution no longer makes sense in this day and age. The college could then decide that it no longer wishes to be a women’s college. But, if it still wishes to be a women’s college, then it should reasonably be expected to serve women.
Judith Shapiro is former president of Barnard College and also is a former professor and provost at Bryn Mawr College.
College admissions is already a high-stakes, daunting process. There are so many moving parts students have to deal with: essays, letters of recommendation, financial aid, interviews, standardized testing — not to mention keeping up with high school classes and activities.
In my previous role as a college counselor for Bottom Line (a college access and success program for first-generation, low-income students), I worked with a cohort of high school students from start to finish in their application process. I was there to answer questions, give responsible advice, help make college accessible, and ease the stress of the process. My students were often worried about making mistakes -- as evidenced by the countless frantic phone calls and emails I would receive -- and now I have to wonder if their biggest mistake was trusting that their applications would be reviewed fairly.
I asked several of the students I worked with what they made of the situation.
For Kimberlee Cruz, a student I counseled in high school and college, having to worry about the FAFSA position would have been a huge concern. “It would have stressed me out, to worry that my fifth choice could have given me terrible aid just because I didn’t list them first. What if I didn’t get into my first choice? Would that mean I would have no options with good aid?”
Financial aid was the most important part of the application process for Cruz, a junior at Worcester State University, as well as the part that was most confusing. “Regardless of the position, you’re interested in the school; otherwise, it wouldn’t be on your FAFSA.”
Most of the students I have worked with wouldn’t think twice about the order they listed colleges on the FAFSA. For some, sure, it was probably in the order of their preference, but for others, maybe the order was alphabetical, geographical, FAFSA code numerical (O.K., probably not that last one, but you get the idea).
And why should they think twice? There’s not any indication on FAFSA that the order matters or that it will be shared.
Daniel Figueiredo, another former student, was shocked to find out that some colleges use information in this manner. “I think it’s completely unethical. To infer something like preference based on a list, it’s sneaky and can really mess up someone’s future -- it shouldn’t be evaluated.”
Figueiredo, a senior at Worcester State, said that he applied to a few reach colleges at the last minute, institutions he wasn’t sure he could get into but wanted to try. “I thought, what the heck, I’ll do it. Maybe I had a chance, but I put them farther down on my FAFSA list since I added them to my list later than some more attainable schools. I did get waitlisted for two of them, and now I’m wondering if the FAFSA position played a role.”
What students should focus on with the FAFSA is having accurate information, having all their colleges added, and meeting all of the priority deadlines. Financial aid can be confusing enough for students and their families, and for many, the weight of their future completely rests on the aid packages that schools offer.
Throwing FAFSA position in the mix is another step for applicants to remember, another potential barrier to access. And I wonder, would an alphabetical or random order even make a difference, or would schools interpret the list as preferential anyway?
Maybe it’s just me, but a college taking its FAFSA position into consideration for admissions and aid decisions seems like a popularity contest. I know that colleges want to fill their classes, that admissions recruiters have goals to meet, that everyone wants the best and the brightest to want to attend their institution. But holding a FAFSA position against a student -- especially since many students don’t realize that something so arbitrary could greatly affect them -- seems in direct opposition to the ultimate goal of getting students to attend and graduate from college.
If FAFSA continues to share this information, colleges engaging in this practice really need to reconsider their position on student access and success. And students thinking about applying to these institutions might want to reconsider as well.
Ali Lincoln is a project director for TVP Communications, a national public relations agency with expertise in higher education.