THIS YEAR MARKS THE 75th anniversary of the original GI Bill, the landmark legislation that made it possible for service members, veterans and their families to access higher education – and the American Dream.
The contemporary version of the GI Bill is financially generous, broadly accessible, and can be applied at almost any public or private institution in America. But now, unlike in 1947, America’s most selective colleges and universities have largely failed to recruit, admit and enroll veterans of recent wars. The numbers are dismal.
Of approximately 1 million individuals enrolled in higher education under what is now known as the Forever GI Bill, fewer than 10,000 are enrolled in selective colleges and universities. Wick Sloane’s annual informal survey of 36 elite colleges and universities counted just 844 veterans enrolled for Fall 2018. Only 1 in 10 GI Bill beneficiaries enroll in institutions with a six-year graduation rate above 70%, according to a recent study by Ithaka SR – and, despite some hand-wringing and a few small programs at some top schools, the numbers are not changing much. Veterans seeking a college degree are overrepresented at for-profit schools, according to Ithaka SR, and they are also underrepresented at high-graduation-rate institutions.
This is a missed opportunity. By reengineering the way colleges and universities serve veterans and military students, institutions of higher education can better serve all students in general.
More than 5% of the student body at Syracuse University – some 1,200 students – are veterans members of the military, an increase in enrollment of more than 500% in just five years. We’ve worked hard to change the experiences of veterans at Syracuse University, we have come to understand the real reasons that they are not enrolled at top schools.
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Academic leaders often assume veterans don’t enroll in top schools because those institutions are too academically difficult or too expensive. But, in our experience, veterans do have the intellectual chops to succeed in academically rigorous programs across all disciplines, and that they outperform the potential indicated by traditional measures – like high school grades and test scores – more reliably and to a greater degree than any other group of students. We have also learned that, with proper policies, private and selective universities can enable veterans to attend, and even meet the full cost of attendance for GI Bill-eligible veterans, in almost any undergraduate degree program. It is not a lack of qualifications or money that is keeping veterans away.
So, what is it? First, almost all top institutions of higher education have designed their infrastructure around 18-year-olds coming directly from high school or a gap year. This includes recruitment and admissions processes, advising and class registration and transfer of credit – the latter being particularly frustrating to vets who may have used some of their benefits on general education credits, only to find that they don’t transfer to the top institutions. This infrastructure also includes the social aspects of college – what 23-year old wants to live in the dormitory with 18-year olds? Extracurricular activities and sports can also feel like they are tailored to the needs of students coming directly from high school.
Second, veterans confront attitudes at top colleges that can make them feel unwanted and unwelcome. They are assumed to be uninterested in the humanities or the arts, important parts of the traditional liberal arts college curriculum. At some places, veterans and active duty or military reservists are told not to wear their uniforms on campus. At others, they are automatically referred to mental health services without having expressed any need for these resources. Academia would appropriately protest such stereotypes if they were applied to students based on race or national origin.
Third, top colleges wrongly suspect that large numbers of veterans will undercut their efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. In fact, opening the door to these students improves diversity and inclusion. The American Council on education found that female student veterans, who make up only 10% to 12% of military personnel, make up 27% of veterans enrolled in postsecondary education; 62% of student veterans are the first in their family to go to college, meaning that they are more socioeconomically and racially diverse; and 47% are married or have children, which makes them more likely to have direct experience interacting with diverse teammates and peers.
Finally, veterans are more likely than traditional students to demand – and thrive – with the kind of innovative teaching methods and learning platforms that some top universities resist. Federal data shows 41% of military graduate students attend fully online compared to 19% of non-military peers; their experience earning credentials through online learning helps them climb the career ladder in the military, and they understand the level of accountability that these platforms demand from students and are prepared to meet the standard.
Syracuse University has worked hard to undercut these stereotypes. We have designed new degree and credentialing programs to effectively engage veterans as students and members of our campus community. We’ve redesigned our admissions, registration, transfer of credit, orientation and housing processes to match the needs of people coming out of military service as well as people coming out of high school. Our veterans are among the best students in the classroom. On average, they maintain higher GPAs compared to traditional students. They have written and performed in plays, shared their creative work in poetry groups and with the public, walked on to the football team, been selected for the cheerleading team and won some of our highest academic and university honors.
Reengineering these processes to serve veterans and military students allows institutions of higher education to better serve all students. It’s high-time that the nation’s best colleges and universities take meaningful steps to engage this generation of American veterans, and by doing so make our best institutions richer, more dynamic, more diverse, and ultimately better for all of us.