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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



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