Veterans at Elite Colleges, 2014

In his annual survey of the nation's wealthiest and most selective colleges, Wick Sloane finds most of them are doing little to enroll the men and women who serve in the military.

November 11, 2014

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.

Barnard: Zero.  Columbia College: Zero. Bryn Mawr: Zero.  Carleton: Zero. MIT: Zero.  Rice: Zero. Smith: Zero.

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 2013 Expanded 2014 Total
Amherst College 8 5
Barnard College 0 0
Brown University 12 11
Bryn Mawr College 0 0
Carleton College 0 0
Columbia College 0 0
Columbia U. School of General Studies n/a 360
Cornell 1 --
Dartmouth College 14 --
Duke University 1 1
Georgetown 25 81
Harvard University   4
Johns Hopkins University 23 19
MIT 2 0
Mount Holyoke College 0 2
Northwestern University 14 19
Oberlin College 0  
Pomona College 1 1
Princeton University 1 1
Rice University 1 0
Smith College 0 0
Stanford University   10
Swarthmore College 0 --
Trinity College   10
University of Chicago   --
University of Pennsylvania 35 35
University of Rochester 16 --
Washington Univ. in St.Louis 20 21
Wellesley College 2 2
Wesleyan University 2 11
Williams College 0 0
Yale University 2 3
Total 180 596

I'll end again this year with an invitation to read Dulce et Decorum Est, the World War I poem by Wilfred Owen.

Share Article

Wick Sloane, an end user of a selective-college education, writes “The Devil’s Workshop” column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him @WickSloane.


Wick Sloane

Back to Top