Call to Action
by Peter Kiernan at Columbia University
What is the problem?
In 2013, the collegiate population in the United States was 20.4 million, of which 1 million were student veterans receiving GI Bill benefits, a number expected to grow by 20% in following years. The actual population of student veterans is greater than this estimate, as some veterans have no GI Bill entitlements or have exhausted their benefits. GI Bill recipients represent 4.9% of the national collegiate student population. Therefore, they are heavily underrepresented in elite institutions.
In the top 20 universities, the numbers of student veterans on an average represents less than 1.1% of the total student population. Among the top 50 institutions, the same numbers represent only 1.4% of the student body. However this doesn’t explain the full picture for two reasons.
- First, many of the student veterans at elite institutions actually come from graduate programs catering to transitioning officers.
- Second, at most elite institutions undergraduates represent a larger portion of the population.
- The combined effects of these two facts indicate that the numbers of student veterans who are undergraduates are substantially fewer than the previous numbers indicate.
For example, as of May 2015, Harvard University had 286 student veterans out of a total of 21,114 students, representing just 1.35%. In May 2015, Harvard College had only two student veterans in their undergraduate college of 6,700, equating to 0.029%.
Why is it a problem?
Military service should not disqualify students from being competitive applicants. Universities take great lengths to ensure they do not discriminate on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation or religion. Military service is not considered on these grounds. One reason for underrepresentation comes from the implicit discrimination in the admissions process. Applicants are made to complete the Common/Universal Application, submit testing scores, high school transcripts and teacher’s reports. Unfortunately the common application makes no distinction for students who’ve had a break in their education. There is no mechanism for an applicant to explain their break in education or to take into account life experience gained during that break.
These numbers illustrate a staggering misrepresentation, but they are only the symptom of a much larger problem. Former Defense Secretary Gates has shown that over the past 15 years less than 1% of the US population has paid the entire cost of war by serving. This illuminates a larger issue, otherwise known as the civil-military divide. Scholars like Huntington and Janowitz differ on the effects of the divide, but all agree on its severity. Discouraging veterans from pursuing an education at these institutions marginalizes their sacrifice and perpetuates a civil-military divide at the highest levels of society.
What is the solution?
The problem of reintegrating veterans returning from their military service is not a new one. After WWII many universities implemented several changes to their academic system to accommodate prospective student veterans returning from war. I propose universities implement a similar and more permanent solution of the past: to provide nontraditional students the opportunity in the admissions process to explain their break in education, and create a mechanism to evaluate the skills developed and life experience gained during that time, leading to a more comprehensive evaluation of applicants.
Veterans are not looking for special advantages as a result of their service and status. Critically, student veterans need to be integrated in the classroom with traditional students to gain all of the benefits of a collegiate education. They must be subject to the same standards, core curriculum, challenges and opportunities as traditional students. This cultural integration fosters a better understanding of the military by traditional students and decreases the existing civil-military divide.
The G.I Bill program is beneficial to universities. Under the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill universities receive guaranteed payment of 18,000 towards tuition, with a matching contribution from the VA for up to the remaining balance. This payment system ensures that most universities receive at least 70% of tuition from the government. Additionally if prospective students qualify for Vocational Rehabilitation, the university receives 100% of tuition paid by the U.S. government. It is a profitable endeavor for universities to open up to student veterans.
Top universities value their diversity, and amongst these elite institutions there is a rivalry for leadership. Each university adopts a different version of a solution to this problem. The results ensure no single standard against which non-traditional programs can be evaluated. So, these programs fall short in different areas. I propose we create a universal standard for non-traditional programs to correct these shortfalls.
By convincing elite universities to adopt these policy changes, the leaders in higher education can bring a change to higher education policy. Once elites universities show this is a successful model, other universities will follow suit.
National Conference of State Legislatures. “Veterans and College.” 30 May. 2014. Web.
Department of the VA
Spain, Everett and Daniel Fisher. “First Annual White Paper on the Integration of Harvard University and the US Military.” Harvard Veterans Organization. 25 May. 2015. Print.
Harvard University Office of Admissions, Applications. n.d. n.p. Web.
Official Register of Harvard University. “What About Harvard?” Harvard University. 27 March. 1945. Print.