With few veterans attending elite colleges, advocates push to close the gap

Veterans make up less than 1 percent of undergraduates at most of the country’s top colleges—under-representation that has spurred advocates and institutions to push for greater veteran enrollment, according to The Hechinger Report.

The military historically has not promoted selective schools, leaving veterans uncertain of their ability to gain admittance into top programs and frustrated when they encounter restrictive transfer policies and financial aid complexities. Additionally, colleges that typically evaluate applicants based on test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities are often ill-prepared to decipher and account for recommendation letters and discharge papers that detail applicants’ military training and accomplishments.

Advocates emphasize missed opportunities

Veterans advocates say America’s top institutions would benefit immensely from veterans’ perspectives and the diversity they’d bring to the student body. “I wish that selective colleges thought about the untapped talent that is out there in the enlisted personnel of our armed forces,” Jessica Nelson, a Marine at Smith College, told Inside Higher Ed. “The growth that the military develops in individuals translates well to the classroom. Veterans can and will redirect the dedication they put toward their work in the military to the work that they will do in the classroom.”

Moreover, “a disproportionate number of the public leaders who send other people’s children to war went to elite schools,” Wick Sloane, a community college professor and the author of an annual survey of veteran enrollment at top schools, told The Hechinger Report. “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.”

Numbers inching up but still disproportionately low

According to Sloane’s research, 844 veterans are enrolled as undergraduates at 36 of the nation’s elite institutions—an increase from 724 in 2017 and 641 in 2016. But those numbers pale in comparison to the 950,000 total GI Bill® recipients enrolled in college—most at state and community colleges.

Colleges, advocates working to steer veterans toward elite schools

Some schools and advocacy groups are attempting to bridge the gap. At a spring meeting of The Ivy League Veterans Council, a nonprofit that works to study and address military veteran under-representation at elite academic institutions, Cornell Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced that the university would seek to increase its undergraduate veteran enrollment from 41 currently to 100 within three years.

Organizations like Service to School, meanwhile, are working to improve access by teaching admissions officers how military service can set the stage for academic success. In addition, the College Board, the non-profit organization that owns the SAT, and Ithaka S+R, a consulting firm, recently announced an initiative to help veterans access and complete college.

“Only one in ten veteran students is enrolling in the colleges and universities that have the highest graduation rates,” Catharine Hill, managing director of Ithaka S+R, said in a statement. “But we know they can succeed at these institutions. We also know that they will enrich the educational experience for all, bringing their diverse life experiences and skills into the classroom and onto the college campus.”

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Explore more information provided by the U.S. government about education benefits offered through the VA.

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