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They served their country. Why aren’t elite colleges serving them better?

Sam Fendler, a Princeton University sophomore and Marine veteran, transferred to the Ivy League  school in the fall. A tattoo running the length of his left arm includes references to his military service.
Sam Fendler, a Princeton University sophomore and Marine veteran, transferred to the Ivy League school in the fall. A tattoo running the length of his left arm includes references to his military service. (John O'Boyle for the Hechinger Report)
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PRINCETON, N.J. — The ink starts at Sam Fendler’s left wrist and winds up his arm, a tableau of his life before college that begins with a block of text: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” At the top of the tattoo, above a version of the Marine Corps emblem, an American flag wraps around his shoulder.

Fendler is among Princeton University’s very few veterans.

In his two years at Penn State before transferring to Princeton this fall, he rarely mentioned his military service. But he has been more open about it at Princeton, which has 12 veterans, up from just one three years ago. In his sociology class, the Western Way of War, he felt it might add to the conversation.

“I don’t like to lead with this about myself,” he said during a discussion group on Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, “but I’m a veteran and I’ve been to war.”

Many state universities and community colleges have large veteran populations and robust programs to recruit veterans and help them adjust to college life. But at the nation’s most selective schools, where most students follow the traditional pipeline from high school to a degree within four years — and from which many go on to leadership roles in government and industry — veterans like Fendler are an anomaly.

Though America’s top institutions are trying to increase this population — which brings not only a distinctive perspective on the world but also, collectively, millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded GI Bill benefits — veterans still make up well under 1 percent of undergraduates on most of these campuses. That’s out of about 1 million veterans and their family members enrolled in higher education under the GI Bill, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For years, the military didn’t promote these most selective schools as an option, and veterans didn’t think they could get in. Many of the colleges, meanwhile, didn’t know how to handle their applications and hadn’t thought about why they should even want veterans.

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Veterans’ advocates argue that those who volunteered to serve in the military should have the chance to attend the nation’s best schools if they qualify and that their presence boosts diversity and adds to the richness of campus life.

Wick Sloane, a community college writing professor, sees a more fundamental reason people should care whether veterans attend schools that educate the nation’s elite.

“A disproportionate number of the public leaders who send other people’s children to war went to [elite] schools,” said Sloane, who publishes an annual survey of veteran enrollment at top schools. “Maybe, just maybe, if [those] students were sitting in English and history class with men and women whom the U.S. had sent to war, those students, as government leaders later in life, would think harder before sending other people’s children off to war.”

This year, Sloane tallied 844 veterans across 36 of the nation’s most select colleges and universities. Columbia University, which first welcomed veterans in large numbers after World War II, accounts for more than half of that total, with 443 veterans enrolled in 2018. But most are in its School of General Studies, set up for older-than-traditional-age students and separate from the general enrollment.

Many elite institutions educate plenty of future veterans — students in officer-training programs who will receive a military commission when they graduate. And veterans are well represented in the graduate programs at many elite schools, advocates said, but many served as officers and attended service academies or already had four-year degrees before joining the military.

Most enlisted-rank veterans, on the other hand, have been out of an academic setting for years, and many didn’t have the grades, test scores or desire to apply to a top university when they were in high school.

“I was an awful student,” said Aimee Chartier, a sophomore political science major at Brown University. “I didn’t think I’d go to college at all, let alone the Ivy League.”

Growing up in Providence, R.I., she knew Brown as the college up on the hill, forever away and out of reach. She dropped out of high school for a while and joined the Marines at 19. She served five years as an intelligence analyst and then started classes at the Community College of Rhode Island. Although she carried a 4.0 grade-point average, she laughed when her German professor suggested she apply to Brown.

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In 2017, however, Brown began to waive application fees for veterans and guarantee phone interviews, so she and her husband, who also served in the Marines, applied. Both were accepted, and they started as freshmen in 2017, with all four years covered by scholarships. The school now has 17 undergraduate veterans; three are women, according to Chartier.

“A lot of people have never met a veteran,” said Jessica Nelson, one of two veterans at the all-woman Smith College, where she is a senior. As a black woman who grew up in the South, she initially felt like an outsider in Northampton, Mass. Her military service made her even more of an anomaly, and her classmates were curious to know more: “They want to know how it is to deal with a hyper-conservative, hypermasculine environment.”

Nelson, who is 30, started college at Texas A&M in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, but left after a few semesters and enlisted in the Marines. She served five years as a topographical analyst attached to an infantry battalion, which had 10 women among the hundreds of Marines. Until this year, she was in the Marine Reserves, which required a weekend of service each month with an infantry unit near Smith. She bounced back and forth between the two worlds, sometimes feeling out of place in both. “It can be a little bit alienating,” she said.

At some colleges that recruit veterans and their GI Bill money, none graduate

This recent push for more veterans at some of America’s elite schools can be traced to James Wright, a former Marine who served as president of Dartmouth from 1998 to 2009. The son of a bartender who fought in World War II, Wright joined the Marines after high school, later earned a PhD in history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and started teaching at Dartmouth in 1969.

As the school’s president, Wright said, he thought a lot about enriching and diversifying the student body but didn’t factor veterans into those calculations until 2005, when he visited Bethesda Naval Hospital and met with troops wounded in Iraq. It was the first of 30 trips he made to military hospitals. Some of these veterans weren’t sure what to do with their lives now that their military careers had ended. He encouraged them to continue their educations, and started a counseling program to help them navigate the process of getting to and through college.

Wright’s peers at other elite schools commended his efforts to help veterans, but “I didn’t get a lot of people lining up and saying, ‘What can we do to join in and help out?’ ” he said. Wright answered the question for them. He helped craft the Yellow Ribbon Program, a component of the 2008 Post-9/11 GI Bill that expanded veterans’ access to expensive private col­leges. The colleges agreed to help cover shortfalls between the maximum amount covered by the GI Bill and the total cost, with VA matching the schools’ contributions.

This put funding in place, but that wasn’t enough. For several years, the numbers of veterans barely climbed above a handful at many of the most selective colleges and universities.

Sloane discovered this by accident. He teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and in the mid-2000s started seeing more students there who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Veterans were writing these searing stories about what they had been through,” Sloane said. He wasn’t sure how to work with students processing such exceptional experiences. He couldn’t find much in academic literature about teaching writing to veterans, so he called the two elite schools he had attended, Williams and Yale, for advice. He wasn’t expecting their response: “Why are you asking us? We don’t have any veterans.”

Sloane figured Williams and Yale must be the exception, so he called more top colleges.

“Year after year, almost none have the number [of veterans enrolled] before I call. That means to me that no one, starting with the college president, wants the number,” said Sloane, who uses his survey as a public reminder to elite institutions that they don’t have enough veterans.

Now, more schools appear to be trying to show that veterans do matter to them, but boosting the number of enrollees hasn’t been easy. With application criteria often based on test scores, grade-point averages and extracurricular activities, admissions officers often don’t know how to account for military experience. They have had to familiarize themselves with military culture.

Several programs started over the past half-dozen years help bridge the gap between qualified veterans and top-tier colleges.

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The Posse Veterans Program, which has veterans at Wesleyan University, Vassar College, the University of Virginia and Dartmouth, uses a cohort model. Veterans enter the schools in groups of 10 and meet weekly with one another and individually with faculty advisers. While many have already taken college courses, Posse students agree to forgo previous college credits and start as freshmen to get the full undergraduate experience.

This can be a disincentive for veterans who already have a year or two of credits. Veterans not in the Posse program can face similar dilemmas. The extra time can also create a financial pinch if the veteran has already tapped into GI Bill benefits, which cover only up to four years.

Colleges vary widely in how they fund veterans. Some require that veterans use their GI Bill money first, with grants and scholarships put toward the remainder. Others don’t factor those benefits into their calculations. Fendler, for instance, goes to Princeton free, with the school paying for tuition, room and board; he plans to put his GI Bill benefits toward law school.

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s higher education newsletter.