Number of veterans enrolled at elite colleges ... drops? (essay)

The number of undergraduate veterans at the nation’s self-proclaimed most highly selective colleges?  Would you believe significantly fewer than were reported in the 2011 Veterans Day survey here

Total this year: 168*.  The * is because, again, too many of these colleges, the 31 invitation-only members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), don’t know.  The number may bounce again. Tomorrow is Veterans Day; time for the column to run.   

The drop from 232 in 2011 to 174* in 2012 to 168* this year?

“Disgraceful and absurd” is what I called the 232 total on Veterans Day 2011. As a measure of available students, veterans and dependents of veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, in the most recent reports, rose from 555,329 students in 2011 to 646,302 in 2012.  232?  174*?  168*?   With the nation at war and 118,784 total undergraduate seats at the 31 COFHE colleges? 

Lost for synonyms, I asked Andrew Bacevich, retired U.S. Army Colonel  and author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013), to describe the pitiful count of veterans at selective colleges.  Bacevich is an eloquent critic of all of us, we, the people, for letting 1 percent of the population bear the nation’s military burden --  fighting, deaths, and wounds. 

“Here is an issue where the nation's most prestigious institutions should demonstrate some leadership,” said Bacevich. “With a very few admirable exceptions, they have failed to do so.  That failure is nothing less than shameful." (Listen to Bacevich on The Colbert Report and on Bill Moyers Journal.) 

Back to the drops. Some colleges had been reporting as veterans the combined totals of both veterans and veteran dependents/family members using the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Cornell in 2011 reported 48, with just one confirmed veteran this year.  Duke reported 22 then and one this year.  Rice last year reported 27 veterans and amended that to one veteran last year and one this year.  Northwestern reports 45 undergraduates who are either veterans or dependents, with the administration relying on a student group to sort out any details. 

Lows for 2013: Yale 2. Princeton 1. Williams 0. Swarthmore 0. No clarification yet on whether the 19 Harvard (which did not reply to last year’s survey) reported this year includes dependents. Am I too skeptical?  The 27 that Stanford had reported turned out Friday evening to include dependents. No clarification yet. 

Highs: University of Pennsylvania 35. Georgetown 25, with 81 total traditional and nontraditional undergraduates including veterans and active-duty military enrolled as undergraduates. Johns Hopkins University 23. Washington University in St. Louis 20. University of Rochester 16. Dartmouth 14, one down from last year. 

Again, too many evasions and excuses and circumlocutions for one column. Yale President Peter Salovey didn’t think that the question of why Yale has just two veterans was worth much time. Or Columbia, again proclaiming unquestionable success with “about 300” veterans in its General Studies program. (This is separate from its main undergraduate college, Columbia College.) Or Columbia, again, declining to reply to the questions:  “Why can’t veterans get a degree from Columbia College, too?” and “What is the endowment of Columbia College versus the endowment of the College of General Studies?” 

Or what to make of just Wesleyan, of all the COFHE colleges, joining the Posse Foundation Veterans Program?.  Two years ago Catharine Hill, president of Vassar (not a COFHE college), and Debbie Bial, founder of the Posse Foundation, created the Posse veterans program and addressed all the stated reasons many COFHE schools had given for their reluctance to enroll veterans.  Now what’s the problem? 

Veterans Can’t Do the Work?

Why so few veterans at selective colleges?  “Veterans can’t do the work,” an Ivy League president told me a few years ago.  Not at a press event.  Not an interview.  I won’t out the individual. 

“Generally devaluing the demonstrated abilities of the men and women who commit to national service is as ugly as the coarsest racism, sexism, etc., that presumably this same leader wouldn't be caught dead expressing. For shame,” said Jon Burdick, University of Rochester’s dean of admissions and financial aid, when told of the president’s quote.  “Anybody who wants to say that should be required to provide proof -- including proof that guiding enrolling veterans to success on their campus would be a greater burden than the significant efforts they voluntarily make in guiding their underrepresented minority students, varsity athletes, and legacy children of major donors.”

“I don’t see any evidence of that,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, which has endowed scholarships for veterans. “The average veteran entering college is in his/her late 20s or early 30s; many have been through a very intense experience serving overseas, and all have incredible training from the military. The workload at a highly selective college or university, while different, may seem easy to them! And unlike the typical 18-year-old first-year college student who comes straight from high school, veterans have had a number of extra years to consider their future, and decided that they really want to go to college now.”

The Usual Excuses

Swarthmore College had zero veterans enrolled again this year. The reply from Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp this year joined the chorus of the usual excuses. Why zero?, I wrote to Chopp. 

The Swarthmore situation troubles me on two counts, I explained. I don't see how institutions that benefit from so many federal programs and policies, from Pell Grants to research funding with generous overhead to tax-deducted donations and a tax-free endowment, can neglect the young men and women we have all sent to war. Then, I am Quaker.  Work with returning veterans is part of what I do as a Quaker.  From Swarthmore Facts & Figures: “Founded in 1864 as a coeducational college by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).”

“Williams, where I went, has zero veterans, has no spiritual or moral traditions,” I wrote to Chopp.  “Trustees there refuse to discuss or wonder why I am asking.  I can't give that pass to Swarthmore.  I don't need to list to you, I know, why Swarthmore would seek a higher standard than Williams.  The usual obfuscation is that a college would be happy to take veterans but none are applying.  We both know that a college would need to recruit this population.  And we both know, I think, that selective colleges, especially those as wealthy as Swarthmore, have exactly as many of certain types of students -- soccer players, chemists, oboists -- as they choose to have.”

Replies and My Rebuttals

From Chopp: “We are geared in our work toward undergraduates in the age range of 18-22 and that fact sometimes makes choosing us less likely for older veterans. In recent years we have been focused on the children of veterans and we have at present seven children of veterans enrolled, which is a part of the support that veterans and their families seek and need. The community colleges and the large state and research universities are better able to enroll large numbers at once.”

Reply: Preposterous. For more than a decade, the U.S. has been a nation at war.  Focusing on 18- to 22-year-olds is a decision by Swarthmore, not the hand of fate.  Until the wars are over and the veterans healed, Swarthmore, a Quaker college, could decide to welcome and accommodate 100, even 200 veterans.  Would Swarthmore accept a tax on its endowment to fund support for veterans at public community colleges and universities? An institution supported by federal aid and tax policies can relegate some 18- to 22-year-olds to war with no responsibility to support those students on their return?

From Chopp: We are only able to enroll smaller numbers given our class size and the commitment to a broad range of access to the liberal arts experience that we exercise.

Reply: Preposterous. In the eyes of Swarthmore, then, students of talent who have chosen not to serve their country are equal in diversity to those who have? 

From Chopp: In our history the largest numbers of veterans we accommodated came after the Second World War, as many who were our students before enlisting in that war returned. Those numbers are less likely in this modern era.

“Less likely”? With 646,302 veterans and dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Swarthmore will make room for seven dependents and no veterans? 

I did find some good news, in addition to Wesleyan joining the Posse program.

Wesleyan is the second college to join the Posse Foundation Veterans program. Vassar, with Posse, enrolled 11 veterans this fall and will enroll as many each year in the future. Wesleyan, a COFHE school, signed on.  “We found that it was a real challenge to ‘go it alone’ as a single institution,” said Wesleyan president, Michael Roth.  “We were impressed by Posse’s veterans program and felt that joining forces with them was the best way to enroll more veterans every year.”

Stanford’s summer school this year will include a program for up to 20 veterans to build their academic skills. That’s the result of several years of advocacy by William Treseder, a Marine combat veteran, Stanford graduate via community college.  Treseder says he came upon the summer school idea in an Inside Higher Ed column.

Reported Undergraduate Veterans in Regular Degree Program, 2013
Note: Colleges with blank cells either could not resolve whether numbers included dependents or not, or did not respond at all.

Institution  No. of Veterans
Amherst College 8
Barnard College 0
Brown University  
Bryn Mawr College  
Carleton College 0
Columbia U.  
Cornell 1
Dartmouth College 14
Duke University 1
Georgetown 25
Harvard U.  
Johns Hopkins U. 23
Mass. Institute of Technology 2
Mount Holyoke College  
Northwestern U. 14
Oberlin College 0
Pomona College 1
Princeton University 1
Rice University 1
Smith College 0
Stanford University  
Swarthmore College 0
Trinity College  
U. of Chicago  
U. of Pennsylvania 35
U. of Rochester 16
Washington U. in St.Louis 20
Wellesley College 2
Wesleyan U. 2
Williams College 0
Yale U. 2
Total 168



Editorial Tags: 

Seven state coalition pushes for more information about military credit recommendations

Smart Title: 

Seven states partner up to ensure that student veterans earn college credit for service, while also calling for help from ACE and the Pentagon.

New GAO report on spending patterns of veterans' tuition benefits

Smart Title: 

New federal report tracks where 1 million student veterans are going to college, and where the $11 billion in education benefits they receive is going.

Ideas for a comprehensive approach to veterans services

Smart Title: 

Taking a broader perspective on veterans' services can help those students better transition to and succeed in college, health officials argue.

College leaders reflect on gap between desire and action in serving student veterans

Smart Title: 

Reinforcing the findings of a survey on veteran services, college officials say they want to help those students but sometimes lack the infrastructure or data.

Essay on teaching veterans

Tyro Tracts

Instructors shouldn't generalize about their veteran students, but should be aware of the issues they may face, writes Nate Kreuter.

Editorial Tags: 

More colleges have programs for military and veteran students, ACE survey shows

Smart Title: 

Many more colleges either have or aspire to create services dedicated to student veterans and active-duty military members, according to a survey. But institutions also say budgets are an issue.

VA to resume policy on deducting debts from tuition benefits

Smart Title: 

The Veterans Affairs Department plans to resume withholding debts from tuition benefits, a plan colleges worry will simply transfer those debts to institutions.

Multi-state investigation of for-profits stays local, so far

Smart Title: 

Multi-state investigation of for-profits includes review of institutional loans and recruiting of veterans. But finding common targets is a problem, and investigators have yet to take on a major for-profit.

Essay: Annual count of veterans on elite college campuses

The count is in – the number of undergraduate veterans in 31 of the nation’s self-proclaimed most highly selective colleges? 232*.  At Bunker Hill Community College, where I teach and work?  450.  The * is because some colleges don’t know the exact number.

This column always sends me breathing into a brown paper bag to calm down. I beg the ghost of I.F. Stone to forgive me for lapses of thinking any numbers represented progress while reporting this absurd and disgraceful story. 

Also on Veterans' Day: H. William Rice's touching essay on what he learned teaching "Dulce and Decorum Est" to a group of young soldiers many years ago. Read here.

The only news that might awaken these private colleges and universities is that this week's "Doonesbury" certified this absence of veterans as a national issue.  In Sunday’s strip (click here), the Vietnam veteran, Iraq amputee and college football coach BD confronts the admissions director, who has been ignoring BD’s emails. 

About?  “The one about your near-total failure to recruit and admit veterans,” BD says.  “Athletes? Sure. Legacies? In spades! But veterans? Some of the country’s most talented, motivated kids?  Not so much!”  The admissions director has no interest. BD, I know. I know.


Fall 2010

Fall 2011











(Perennial US News liberal arts leader)



Bunker Hill Community College



As you can see from the fuller chart below, the range is from 48* at Cornell to zero at Williams, Carleton, Barnard/Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. (Columbia and Penn have veterans in the adult ed/schools of general studies. More later on that.) To the good, Johns Hopkins has 31; University of Rochester, 23; Northwestern and Duke, 22. At Smith, a women’s college, 12.

As a good-faith gesture, I’ll note the few commendable acts. First is Jon Burdick, University of Rochester Dean of Admissions, who said, “Each veteran adds much more to a classroom, lab or hallway discussion than another student straight from high school could, no matter how bright. I haven’t understood the colleges that aren’t doing everything in their power to reach and enroll more veterans, especially considering the Yellow Ribbon opportunity.” (The Yellow Ribbon program is the element of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that provides additional funds for veterans to attend private colleges.)

At the first-ever veterans’ orientation at Harvard (two undergraduate, more than 200 graduate students), President Drew Faust announced that Harvard must accord military service the same honor as all public service. Faust and faculty panelists later told the veterans that their views and perspectives are essential in Harvard’s classrooms if the university’s graduates are to have the education to be leaders in the 21st century.  (President Faust:  I couldn’t get a copy of your remarks.  Please write them up and run them here in Inside Higher Ed.)

At Yale, President Rick Levin upheld tradition and again refused to discuss the issue. When the Yale news office reported three undergraduate veterans, I asked, “Why so few?”  The reply: “Unfortunately, I do not have an analysis.”  I said I could wait while the office asked around. No reply.

A Princeton spokesman told me that this year Princeton didn’t have the ability to reply to my question. I e-mailed Princeton President Shirley Tilghman. She answered quickly, “I understand we have two undergraduates and two graduate students who are veterans at the moment.  We do not discourage veterans from applying to Princeton, and we accept them using the same broad criteria as we use for the rest of our applicants. Their service would certainly count in their favor.”

“I think that since most Americans are not sacrificing anything for these wars, we have a shared obligation to extend a hand to those who are sacrificing,” said Jim Wright, Dartmouth president emeritus.  Wright, a Marine enlisted man before college, led visits to wounded soldiers and established Purple Heart scholarships at Dartmouth for wounded veterans.  “We need to encourage veterans to pursue educational opportunities and provide the means for them to do this.  And elite institutions have a special obligation to do this: we are privileged and with this privilege comes a responsibility.”

This year I expanded my survey to cover the colleges in the highly selective Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE).  More colleges brings more news that I’ll cover here this week. In a column next week, I’ll reveal my proposal to improve the dreary results. (Hint: I will propose that Princeton and Williams host a COFHE-led summer semester to prepare veterans for success at selective, residential colleges.)

I write to coax and find solutions to problems.  Williams?  I invited the head of the trustees, the Silicon Valley titan Greg Avis, to visit Bunker Hill Community College to meet with veterans.  We’d listen, ask questions, and create pathways for veterans to colleges like Williams. I said I’d spring for his airfare. No reply.  I renewed the invitation.  A non-reply reply that neither accepted nor declined my invitation. So much for innovation from Silicon Valley.

Duke, too, believes veterans enhance the education of the entire campus. “With 30,000+ applicants for 1,700 spaces in the entering class, we have the ability to take chances on what might be nontraditional candidates, like veterans, and we also provide mechanisms and support and advising to make sure they can succeed in a very competitive environment,” said Michael Schoenfield, Duke vice president for public affairs and governmental relations. (Twenty-two undergraduate veterans.)

A few puzzles, still, in the story. I don’t know what to make of veterans in the colleges of general studies. Columbia enrolls 210 students there, and carries out active recruiting to bring veterans to the program. Columbia is the first to enroll veterans from the excellent new U.S. Marine Corps Leadership Scholar Program. Why not Columbia College? Students who have taken more than a year off between high school and college are not eligible for admission there. Huh? With 21st-century demographics? 

Northwestern enrolls 81 and Penn 12 in their schools of general studies. Such schools, I know, offer excellent opportunities to adults returning to school who may only be able to attend college part-time.  But…. An objective of the federal post-9/11 GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program is to let veterans attend college full-time. However excellent, whatever the diploma says, these programs are not the gold ring. 

At Bunker Hill Community College this Veterans Day? I taught a literature class for a friend who had to take a relative to the doctor. I brought “Ambush,” a story about Vietnam by Tim O’Brien, and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” about World War I, by Wilfed Owen. Well, that section had only three of us born in the U.S. The others were from Somalia, Colombia, Vietnam and Korea. 

At BHCC, we treat students who have been in wars as veterans, too. These men and women didn’t need to read about war from me.  Near the end of the class, a woman from Somalia said that her father had been killed while she watched. Her mother and her sisters were killed in that war.  She didn’t understand what difference the U.S. presence made. As the class ended, the Somali woman was crying. One of the Korean women was holding her. I brought the Somali woman up to my office. A colleague and I talked with her as she cried. We gave her lunch. We will help her with housing and money for food. 

For myself, I’ll end this column again with Owen’s poem.  Why can’t we teachers find a curriculum that will end these wars? 


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest 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
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes 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, 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 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 - March, 1918

Veterans at Consortium on Financing Higher Education Colleges, 2011

Institution Undergraduate College General Studies
Amherst College 3  
Barnard College 0  
Brown University 6  
Bryn Mawr College 2  
Carleton College 0  
Columbia University 0 210
Cornell University 48*  
Dartmouth College 14*  
Duke University 22  
Harvard University 2  
Johns Hopkins University 31  
Mass. Inst. of Technology 1  
Mount Holyoke College 3  
Northwestern University 22 81
Oberlin College No reply  
Pomona College 1  
Princeton University 2*  
Rice University No reply  
Smith College 12  
Stanford University 20  
Swarthmore College 2  
Trinity College (Conn.) 4  
University of Chicago *  
University of Pennsylvania 0 12
University of Rochester 23  
Washington University in St. Louis 4*  
Wellesley College 2  
Wesleyan University 5  
Williams College 0  
Yale University 3  
Total 252  
* May include dependents on GI Bill. University of Chicago reports 250 veterans on campus, including graduate students and employees.    
(Note: This table has been updated from an earlier version to correct the figures for Cornell and Columbia.)    



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


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