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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Lesley McBain

Attention, presidents of the self-proclaimed most highly selective colleges surveyed:

I declare this year’s survey of undergraduate veterans a disaster. I have been tracking since 2008. As a percentage of total enrollments at your colleges, the undergraduate veteran enrollment remains stalled at near zero. Again, half of you would not even give me a number more than a month after I asked.

Consider: in the survey this year, Columbia University’s School of General Studies, at 430 undergraduate veterans, and Syracuse University, at 135, make up 56 percent of the 1,004 total for this year.

Enrollments in the table below are not apples to apples. Williams, with undergraduate enrollment of 2,000, has enrolled seven veterans this fall. Yale enrolled 25 veterans with about 4,600 undergraduates. In covering this story since 2008, the cynical answers are too often true—it’s the U.S. News rankings. Adding veterans, mostly low-income and first-generation students, is no benefit in the rankings and probably a penalty. Supply and demand market forces put no reward on enrolling a veteran. The numbers every year are all zero to me.

Let’s resolve this the higher ed way -- a seminar. I declare that Williams and Yale are the top colleges anywhere. Williams president Maud Mandel and Yale president Peter Salovey, I invite you to lead these presidents in Zoom seminars identifying and testing what all of you have determined are the unacceptable penalties of enrolling veterans.

For your presidential seminars:

  1. What is the cost in dollars of going down one level, 10 levels, 20 levels in the U.S. News rankings? Beyond veterans, top colleges are managing, deciding based on the cost of dropping and rising in the rankings. Decisions about veterans or a new STEM lab without careful financial estimates are sloppy decisions I hope no one would accept from students in your classrooms.
  1. Read and consider “President and Soldier—Three Meetings and a Lesson in Resilience,” The New York Times, by Jackie Calmes, April 22, 2013.

This is the story of Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg and his three meetings with President Barack Obama. The first was in 2009 on Omaha Beach, where Sergeant Remsburg was part of a re-enactment of a D-Day parachute drop.

The second was later in 2009, when Obama visited the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

The third, the article goes on, was in the summer of 2013, at Sergeant Remsburg’s home in Phoenix, “where Sergeant Remsburg did something that neither Mr. Obama nor military doctors would once have predicted: he stood up and saluted his commander in chief.”

Seminar discussion: We, the people, including the three of us, the faculty, the students and the alumni of your colleges, sent Sergeant Remsburg to Afghanistan. What benefit, what problem solved, was worth Sergeant Remsburg’s wounds? A friend who is a U.S. Army colonel knows Sergeant Remsburg. Invite Sergeant Remsburg, on Zoom or in person, to join the discussion.

  1. Read “Forever Wars, My Son Was Killed in Iraq 14 Years Ago—Who’s Responsible?” by U.S. Army colonel, retired, Andrew Bacevich, Ph.D. Princeton, Quincy Institute, Forever Wars, May 27, 2021. What are your answers, the president’s answers, to families whose loved ones have died in wars? I email Andrew every Memorial Day with a prayer for his son and his family. Invite Andrew Bacevich to join the discussion.
  2. Reconsider, from No. 1, above, your starting unacceptable penalties for enrolling veterans.

I’ll visit you both next fall to report in my Veterans Day column what you have learned. As my better than a cash major gift, I have attached a spark for discussions in all of your classrooms. (PDF attached.)

Last week Syracuse opened the stunning veterans’ center in the center of its campus. This with a $20 million gift for the building and a $30 million gift to endow veterans’ programs, both from Navy veteran and Syracuse graduate Daniel D’Aniello and his wife, Gayle.

Listen. Listen to your colleague, Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud’s opening remarks. Listen. A long quote, worthy of every syllable of your reading time.

“Last year, a colleague of mine who leads another private university asked me this: ‘Kent,’ he said, ‘What is the real reason for all this veterans’ stuff at Syracuse? After all, you never served. No other major university is doing this. What’s the real reason you care about this?’ I get questions like this more often than this audience probably would expect.

“Here is the two-part answer. First, it is a moral issue for me. This is a beautiful campus at an amazing private university in a great and civilized country. This university and this country, and all the opportunities they afford all of us, would not last a decade, let alone a generation, unless men and women are willing to fight and sometimes die for their country, and for their brothers and sisters. I am student of history, and this is the simple truth. We just ended the longest war in our history, fought by an entirely volunteer force drawn from less than 1 percent of our population. And those who recently serve and have served, by and large, have not been drawn from places like Harvard or Princeton—indeed they historically have rarely seen the opportunities and advantages that a great private university can bestow. Yet we at great private universities have been given our freedom by their sacrifice. ‘To whom much is given, much will be required,’ to quote St. Luke.”

Amen, Kent.

This 1,004 total undergraduate veteran enrollment at your colleges? Sound veteran data is too hard to find. Hundreds of thousands of students and their families are using federal education benefits. Almost no one, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to almost all your colleges, can or will answer a question this year about how many receiving federal veterans’ benefits completed a degree or credential.

In about 2008, veterans started showing up in my classes at Bunker Hill Community College. I could find no advice about teaching veterans. I asked the most highly selective colleges I attended, Williams and Yale, for help. “Why are you asking us? We don’t have any veterans” was the reply. Why not? “Why should we?” Denial. Dissembling. Occasional lying ever since. Even now. I am still angry.

Again this year, I first asked your colleges in September for data on the number of veterans enrolled. Again this year, by Halloween, half of you had not replied. Few have the number of undergraduate veterans before I ask, and this is after years of asking. Football rosters and fall sports information are online by Labor Day. This is with institutional research offices. This is with alumni/development offices that track alumni data perhaps even down to shoe size.

Colleges track what matters. What does not matter, since I started asking in 2008, is the welfare of the other people’s children that your—our—graduates have sent to war.

No one wants to discuss my question: “How could the self-declared greatest colleges and universities in the world educate graduates who will solve problems without sending other people’s children to war?”

The failures of Vietnam? Iraq and Afghanistan? Thought up and led by your—our—graduates almost all in suits, not military uniforms. The cost of veteran care alone from Iraq/Afghanistan is estimated from $2.2 to $2.5 trillion from 2001 to 2050. This according to my friend Harvard Kennedy School professor Linda Bilmes, writing for the Brown University Watson Institute’s “Cost of Wars” project.

This failed war, then, has a cost of at least $2 trillion. Shouldn’t a $2 trillion error by those colleges who educated the architects and leaders of these wars be cause for reflection? Not yet. Perhaps this year someone will help with my simple question, which I repeat.

I can hope: “How could the self-declared greatest colleges and universities in the world educate graduates who will solve problems without sending other people’s children to war?”

With my own most highly selective degrees, Williams and Yale (both veteran enrollment laggards, with seven at Williams and 25 at Yale), I will not let a few good deeds sugarcoat how few veterans are at your schools.

As a matter of balance, I will turn to the good news.

After many years of failing to reply to the Inside Higher Ed survey at all, this year saw a leap ahead with 55 undergraduate veterans enrolled at the University of Chicago and 49 at Harvard. Cornell University in 2017 committed to enroll 100 undergraduate veterans. Cornell reports 82 this year. Brown, 35, continues to add a few every year.

Those committed from the start remain so. Vassar, 30, and Wesleyan, 26, were the first to join the Posse Foundation veterans’ program. Dartmouth, where the effort began due to president emeritus James Wright, a Marine, has 26.

More veterans may be looking on their own for these educations. Veteran education data continues to be scarce. My favorite nonprofits supporting enlisted men and women who want to go to college, Service to School and Warrior Scholar, continue to grow. Service to School for this fall helped 748 veterans apply for undergraduate admission, versus 487 last year. Defying the doubters about veterans’ academic ability and potential, S2S supported the 68 veterans who applied to Harvard College.

The Warrior Scholar Project (WSP) this year will have had 300 veterans, mostly first generation in college, in the 21 10-day/two-week boot camps on academic skills. WSP continued a STEM program and added a business program. WSP will continue the new all-women cohorts that succeeded last summer.

Individual colleges report many veterans enrolling from community colleges. Good. Again, no evidence I can find of a united effort by community colleges to help veterans transfer after completing their two-year degrees. Again, I asked the presidents of the major community college trade groups about accomplishments and plans ahead for community college. Again, no reply from Walter Bumphus, head of the American Association of Community Colleges, and, breaking my heart, no reply from the Association of Community College Trustees, where Jee Hang Lee ascended to president.

In my search for data last week, I appealed to three presidents. One came through with a number. One promised an answer. Nope. He is retiring with other good work done; no potshots from me. Total silence from the third, the president of Caltech, which enrolls zero undergraduate veterans. Silence after many appeals to Caltech staff.

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the silent president of Caltech, how many hundreds of millions in federal research funds? How much from defense and classified grants? Classified, I imagine.

Caltech will not reach out to the men and women who volunteered to serve in wartime to find any to enroll? This has nothing to do with high academic admissions standards. MIT this fall has nine veterans. For several years, MIT has been working with community colleges—including my own Bunker Hill Community College—to support veterans with the prerequisites, including calculus and calculus-based physics.

For more than 10 years, Harvard every summer has been including veterans in summer STEM research programs. My question: What has Caltech tried?

Returning to Syracuse’s Kent Syverud and a moral obligation to educate veterans. You presidents know that the core of this survey is the Consortium on Financing Higher Education’s somewhat secret society–ish 35 self-proclaimed “highly selective, private liberal arts colleges and universities, all of which are committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students.” Top administrators alone have access to data on the COFHE web site. From the site: “(Note: Students and others affiliated with member institutions do not have access to the site.)”

With tuitions paid by COFHE students paying the COFHE dues? I gave up querying COFHE years ago. A COFHE staffer emailed commending me for asking for the number of undergraduate veterans. “I tried and was ordered to stop counting,” he wrote.

Where are we? I have failed again to move the issue of veteran enrollments beyond an irritating enrollment question. I can think of no better measure of the quality of our most highly selective educations as citizens than the absence of war and the health and well-being of veterans. Perhaps including the nightmares of veteran suicides and homelessness this fall will at last boost the sorry total undergraduate veteran enrollment at the nation’s self-proclaimed most highly selective colleges.

Looking to Veterans Day 2022, I wrote the Pentagon a few weeks ago, proposing a monthly report to the U.S. secretary of defense, tracking on one line veteran suicides, homelessness and education completion. Reasonable liberal arts systems thinking? These are spread in fragments among the VA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the federal Department of Education. These are all linked issues. Our goal should be that suicides and veterans, still horrific, will continue to trend down while veteran education achievement goes up.

One afternoon in my windowless basement office at Bunker Hill Community College, I sat with a sobbing Marine, wounded. Since he returned home, the 19th and 20th of his buddies from his Marine unit in Iraq and from Walter Reed National Medical Center had died by suicide. Every time this Marine stabilized enough to go to school, more of his buddies threatened to or committed suicide.

For my suicide/homelessness/education report, I reached back to the veterans’ session at the 2010 White House Summit on Community Colleges. I wrote to retired U.S. Navy rear admiral John Kirby, now assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Perhaps the only person to whom I can say, “We met at the White House.”

Kirby was at the summit as an aide to then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen. (Click here for my press pool report, read only by me, as far as I know.) Even obscure columnists have occasional inside-the-Beltway sources. I found and wrote to Kirby’s actual email address. We’ll see.

I am flooded with the success stories of veterans now graduating from these most highly selective colleges. That will fill another column. Among the three veteran successes are a Smith graduate now at the University of Michigan Law School, a Princeton graduate studying astrophysics also at Michigan, and a Williams graduate at Harvard Medical School.

The editor is calling. I promised myself I’d be done here two days ago. Another column for the successes.

I’ll end with a poem from the Poetry Foundation that I have included here too many times. War and veterans is not a college enrollment issue.

Dulce et Decorum Est

By Wilfred Owen

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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.

Notes: Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Inside Higher Ed’s 2021 Survey of Undergraduate Veterans at Highly Selective Colleges

  2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Amherst College 8 5 8 5 5 9 13 16 14
Bowdoin College                  
Brown U 12 11 10 12 17 17 21 26 36
Bryn Mawr College 0 0 0 0 4 0 2 0 0
California Inst. of Tech.             0    
Carleton College 0 0 0 3 0        
Columbia U n/a 360 408 375 422 443 477 441 430
Colorado College       3   0 0 0 0
Cornell U 1     12 24 27 30 62 82
Dartmouth College 14   17 23 25 36 34 33 26
Duke U 1 1 2 0 1 2 7 2 2
Georgetown U 25 74 58 65 64 41 42 26 13
Harvard U   4   3 6 8 17 24 49
Johns Hopkins U 23 19 30 17 18 2 5   2
Massachusetts Inst. of Tech. 2 0 1 4 10 11 12 11 9
Middlebury College           0      
Mount Holyoke College 0 2 4 2   0 0 0 1
Northwestern U 14 19 11 15 15 51 6    
Oberlin College 0     0 0        
Pomona College 1 1 1 3 5 6 3 4 5
Princeton U 1 1 1 1 5 12 18 23 26
Rice U 1 0 0 0 0 0   1 1
Smith College 0 0 1 2 3 2 1 0 1
Stanford U   10 16 21 23 30 26 37 19
Swarthmore College 0     0       2  
Syracuse U               124 135
Trinity College   10 4 4 0     0 3
U of Chicago             15 33 55
U of Pennsylvania 35 35     14 15 15 19  
Vanderbilt U       1     6 3 2
Vassar College     30 32   34 32 29 30
Washington U in St. Louis 20 21 13 12 6 10 32 4 4
Wellesley College 2 2 1 0 2     1 1
Wesleyan U 2 11 22 30 38 39 35 29 26
Williams College 0 0 1 3 5 5 5 4 7
Yale U 2 3 4 11 12 10 15 16 25
Total 180 596 643 641 724 830 884 946 1,004

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