Of the 3.6 million post-9/11 veterans, more than 2.2 million don’t have bachelor’s degrees. Many community colleges and four-year public universities enroll large numbers of veterans, and often these schools are serving their needs well. But American higher education is highly stratified. Selective colleges and universities, private and public, with more resources to spend on their students, could do more to educate a larger share of the nation’s veterans.
Relatively few veterans are enrolled at the most selective and wealthy colleges and universities today, for a variety of reasons. Recruiting these students can be difficult. They are not of the traditional age group, and in many cases, their high school experiences and their family incomes did not put them on the path to college. But veterans, if prepared, will have the greatest chance of succeeding and earning a degree if they go to the most selective school possible given their potential. Our veterans deserve the opportunity to be at these schools, among our nation’s finest institutions.
“Be all you can be” was an Army recruiting slogan for years. Shouldn’t that opportunity continue after a veteran’s service to America?
It seems incumbent on us as a nation to make sure that veterans have access to the educational opportunities for which they are ready when they are ready. So what has to happen for more veterans to attend these schools? Colleges and universities can make it a priority and take practical steps to enroll and support them.
They can recruit veterans explicitly. Schools must develop ways of reaching veterans, who will not be exposed to the high school marketing these colleges typically do, and help them to understand that these schools are a realistic option for them. Becoming engaged with national programs that focus on helping veterans attend strong four-year colleges and universities, such as the Posse Veterans program, the S2S (Service2school) program or the Warrior Scholars program, can help.
At Vassar College, veterans were recruited through the Posse program, and these students are succeeding. Wesleyan University and Dartmouth College also recruit veterans through the Posse program.
Schools can also reconsider how they evaluate possible candidates, since many of these young men and women have both received significant further training post-high school while in the service, and also have discovered a greater personal commitment to and motivation for further education. Admissions officers need to evaluate applicants by looking beyond their high school credentials, at their experiences and training in the military, which can provide insight on veterans’ abilities and motivation.
And finally, veterans, like many other students, may need support once on campus. The overall level of support services at the selective colleges and universities in general is one reason these schools are a great option for veterans to begin with, and these schools also have the resources to invest in understanding and helping with their specific needs. Colleges and universities can also benefit from partnering with national organizations like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Many selective colleges and universities are deeply committed to diversifying their student bodies by both race and income. For example, a group of colleges and universities with high graduation rates recently announced their commitment to further support the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies, through the American Talent Initiative.
Diversifying by military status can contribute to their accomplishing these objectives. Veterans attending these schools today have also added another source of rich diversity in terms of life experiences to their communities. Their presence has benefited not just the veterans but the broader community, from other students and employees, who are sometimes veterans themselves of earlier wars or who have veterans in their families, to our alumnae and alumni.
Veterans in search of further education may find appropriate programs across American higher education. But if the for-profits that have not served veterans well in terms of degree completion are emboldened by the new administration’s policies, other colleges and universities could respond by more aggressively recruiting veterans themselves.
If the colleges and universities with the highest graduation rates do their part for those veterans who are prepared and in search of a bachelor’s degree, they will have the highest chances of success, while also contributing to the diversity goals of these institutions. Recruiting veterans would also make an important statement about our country’s and our institutions’ values and commitment to fairness. Let’s recognize the service that these young men and women have undertaken on our country’s behalf.
Catharine Bond Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College.