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Staggering longitudinal insight for this year: colleges that want more veterans, that look for more veterans, are finding and enrolling plenty of qualified veterans. Some leaps this year in my annual survey for Inside Higher Ed of how many veterans selective colleges and universities are enrolling:

College 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Brown U 17 17 21 26 36 41
U of Chicago - - 15 33 55 76
Cornell U 24 27 30 62 82 75
Harvard U 6 8 17 24 49 59
Princeton U 5 12 18 23 26 40
Syracuse U - - - 124 135 152

Even in the 10th year of asking these selective colleges a simple question—“How many undergraduate veterans?”—the waffling, the deflections, the misdirections keep coming. We ask for the numbers in the fall. Many colleges comply and help quickly. Again this year, the chase went until Wednesday of this week. Blanks in the table all received many requests. Again at the 11th hour, I had to appeal to college presidents for the number. I batted .500. Yes from Stanford. Nope from Caltech. Earlier in the fall, the current and just-emeritused presidents of Northwestern refused to count the number of undergraduate veterans.

The clearest, simplest explanation for growth this year is from Ron Novack, a retired Army colonel, who is executive director of the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs at Syracuse. Ron gave me these three eloquent reasons for the consistent leaps ahead in veteran enrollment and services:

  1. “Recruiting Team. We have a dedicated recruiting team that goes out and recruits transitioning service members and their families. This investment was made by the chancellor in 2015.
  2. “Reputation. Our reputation has expanded nationally via the Military Times ‘Best for Vets’ Four-Year College survey and our communications team telling our story. Recently, I asked a student veteran why he decided to attend Syracuse University, and he said, ‘Because I heard you are the best place to support veterans attending college, and that is where I want to be!’ That, sir, is validation at a very high level.
  3. “‘Recruit Your Replacement.’ I charge our student veterans to ‘recruit their replacement,’ and they are beginning to do a very good job fulfilling on that charge.”

The exciting leap this year is to 76 at the University of Chicago, which in 2018 and before would not reply to the Inside Higher Ed survey. (Syracuse with 152 and Cornell with 75 and Columbia with 313 veterans all took the lead years ago without any urging by obscure columnists.)

Colleges are often reluctant to discuss details about applicant pools. Data on any growth or not in qualified veteran applicants is hard to find. Veterans talking with other veterans is the anecdotal best source of applicants.

“Yes, the number of applicants is increasing as veterans hear from their peers who share their own experiences attending these schools,” said Beau Butts, executive director of veterans’ initiatives, programs and services at the University of Chicago.

Adding to the applicants is the growth of the Warrior Scholar Program and Service to School. WSP is a 10-day residential academic boot camp to show veterans they can succeed at college academic work. Service to School links veterans who want to go to college and graduate school with veterans enrolled at those schools. Veterans aiming for college have guides and coaches through the forbidding anthropology and sociology minefields of applying to selective colleges. Click here to read some WSP stories. Scroll down to the S2S stories.

WSP started as one session of about 20 veterans at Yale. Melanie Hicks, WSP’s chief program officer, said that WSP had 21 boot camps for 302 veterans last year, with a total of 310 expected for this year. This year, WSP expects to reach at least 500 veterans in shorter events including College Success Workshops, Women Veteran Empowerment Dialogues and Graduate School Support.

Service to School mentors and advisers reached 852 veterans in 2022 so far versus 748 in 2021, according to S2S chief operating officer and retired Marine master sergeant Jim Selbe. S2S will help any veteran who calls. This can be a few conversations to full mentoring and coaching through college selection, application and enrollment.

Veterans who were enlisted men and women have the same challenges as other first-generation, low-income college applicants. The veterans may not have done well in high school. They may not understand that their military discipline has created a new path for academic success. The veterans need some guides along the way, though. I love the final night WSP dinners and meeting the veterans who cannot believe, and are so proud, that they have read Thucydides, de Tocqueville and complex academic articles. No one pretends 10 days at WSP is a college semester. The daily assignments are from college-level courses.

I’ve seen scores of these men and women return to their community colleges and apply their boosted self-esteem. Service to School reaches out a hand, and in a year or maybe two, the veterans are in a four-year college.

Information for veterans about going to college has ripened at last. Veterans are no longer emailing me because my columns were about all they could find about college. I miss the veterans. They are on a better track. More college websites are welcoming and crammed with information. Click on Chicago, Syracuse, Cornell, Columbia and Harvard.

Turning to the mirror before me, I admit I have failed in the goal I set in this column last year for rigorous campus debates on war and the military in U.S. society today.

Still, all I want is for the self-proclaimed top colleges and universities in the world to educate graduates who can solve problems without sending other people’s children to war.

In my 2021 column, I offered the presidents of the schools I attended, Williams and Yale, to help start these discussions. I sent both Odysseus in America and the Trials of Homecoming by the MacArthur Award–winning author Jonathan Shay. I had learned from this and Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, also by Shay, that the damage of combat, physical wounds or not, is at least 10 times worse than I had imagined.

The late Jim Wright, Marine, president emeritus of Dartmouth, tireless visitor to the Afghanistan/Iraq wounded men and women, sent me to these books 10 years ago. I had asked for help then because veterans from those wars, many with physical wounds, were showing up in my classes at Bunker Hill Community College.

My friend Dawn Rennert of the Concord Bookshop thanks me often. No one, she said, has bought so many of the Shay books so often. The presidents of Williams and Yale thanked me for the books. Joining the scores of other recipients, no word since on having read the Odysseus book. And, by tradition, again I failed to speed up veterans enrolled at my beloved (most of the time) schools.

  2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Williams College 5 5 5 4 7 13
Yale U 12 10 15 16 25 33

Veteran enrollment numbers are the start, not the end, a proxy on whether the students on selective campuses think about the men and women who have joined the all-volunteer military.

Here’s my 2022 proposal. We’ll see where I am for Veterans Day 2023. Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common Application. Hi. This one’s for you. As the main essay question for the Common Application, how about: “Why have you decided not to serve in the military before attending college?”

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