5 Ways To Boost Veteran Enrollment At Top Colleges

Bryan Box, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, is now a biological sciences major at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The population of student veterans at UAA and UA Fairbanks has prompted the universities to bring on additional staff. At UAA, a veteran resources center was started a few years ago to ease the transition from member of the military to university student. (AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News, Marc Lester) EDUCATION Bryan Box, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, is now a biological sciences major at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News by Marc Lester.

As the end of college admission season approaches, applicants anxiously await emails and letters revealing the results. Alongside nervous high school seniors, many veterans also wait for decisions. Unfortunately, our experience helping hundreds of veterans shows that all too often they are not setting their goals high enough and unfortunately not even taking the chance at applying to some of our nation’s best undergraduate institutions. Our organization, Service to School, exists to bridge the military-academic divide. We work with many of the nation’s top education institutions to boost enlisted to undergraduate enrollment.

Veteran presence at top colleges, or lack thereof, is an issue that has begun to receive a fair bit of attention. Each year, Wick Sloane writes a review about the dearth of veterans enrolled at elite colleges. Last Veterans Day, three cabinet secretaries also addressed the issue with an opinion piece on how universities can better support veterans and their transition to higher education. Although these authors have offered useful insight, we believe they failed to address the complicated and entrenched systemic issues facing veterans in their challenging transition from military service to the classroom.

These issues span all the parties involved in the veteran transition to higher education: the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Education, colleges and their admissions officers, nonprofits like S2S, and the veterans themselves.

It would be easy just to point a finger at schools and say “Enroll more veterans!”, but the main reason for the lack of veteran enrollment at top programs right now has less to do with these schools and more with veterans themselves. Veterans need to transform how they perceive and prepare their applications to selective and elite institutions.

Here are five ways we can work together to boost veteran enrollment at our nation’s top schools:

1. The Department of Defense should develop a college admissions program to help transitioning vets attend reputable four-year undergraduate programs.

Having sat through the military’s transition program ourselves, we strongly believe that the DoD, ED, and VA can do a much better job with improving transition assistance programs so that veterans not only know how to actually use the GI Bill, but just as crucially, have the right framework for evaluating and pursuing their educational goals. The DoD should steer service members away from for-profit universities while they are in the service. Right now, many veterans do not know the difference between DeVry and Duke. That must change. The Marine Corps has made a good start with their Leadership Scholar Program, but the other services must follow.

Related: What’s Next For Student Veterans of America? The National Conference Offered A Glimpse »

2. Veteran applicants need to aim higher and not sell themselves and their experiences short.

If veterans approached their college applications with the same zeal as they approached completing boot camp or a combat mission, then they would be able to make themselves competitive at many of the nation’s best programs. Every admissions officer that we speak with as part of our VetLink program encourages veterans to apply to their programs and evaluates veterans holistically. This holistic assessment covers applicants’ military service, their most recent transcripts (not just their high school grades), their communication abilities, their academic and life goals, as well as standardized test scores, etc.

Service to School’s VetLink program is a partnership with some of the best colleges and universities in the United States to boost veteran enrollment. S2S currently works with Amherst, Cornell, MIT, Notre Dame, Princeton, Smith, Williams and Yale to identify competitive applicants. S2S is also working to expand the members of the VetLink program so that we and our partner schools can increase the number of veterans at these campuses.

3. Community college is a great place to academically prepare for an elite college

Veterans have the intellect, ability, potential, and leadership to land and thrive in our nation's top undergraduate programs. We have found that community college is an excellent place for veterans to gradually acclimate back into an academic and civilian setting, and prepare for the rigors of more demanding academic institutions. Many of our most competitive candidates who have been accepted into a VetLink school first spent one or two years at community colleges,  compiling transcripts with great grades in courses that were progressively more difficult. They were then able to put together compelling applications reflecting the totality of their experience, education, and achievement. Through firsthand experience, we know that community college can be a great stepping-stone to a highly selective college.

4. Schools and admissions officers need to better understand veterans and the diversity they bring to campus.

Veterans are unique applicants. They are older students who have often overcome significant adversity while developing leadership skills in multicultural environments. The majority of student veterans are also first generation college students. These factors require a different model for intake, evaluation, and acceptance than high school students. The Warrior Scholar Project, Stanford’s 2 to 4 program, and the Ivy League Veterans Council are helping to bridge that gap by working with admission officers and university administrators to foster a college campus that invites, accepts, and embraces veterans.

5. Resources like Service to School and our allies are here to help.

Organizations like Service to School, Warrior Scholar Project and professors, family members and friends need to mentor, coach, and prepare veterans to successfully transition and apply to great undergraduate institutions.

At both Yale and Cornell last year, we worked with their admission offices to help some 25 veterans submit applications to these programs. Of those applicants, around a quarter were accepted. At Williams, roughly half of those who applied through VetLink were accepted. All three schools had exceptionally high rates of veteran acceptance.

Our data lead us to conclude that the biggest factor to increasing the number of veterans on campus at top schools is increasing the number of veteran applicants applying to these schools. As hockey great Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” We are seeing that veterans incorrectly assume that they don’t belong at our nation’s top undergraduate institutions when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

At the same time, we recognize that if we are going to improve the quality and increase the quantity of veteran applicants, then we need to be more aggressively engaged with transitioning veterans. The VetLink schools are leading by example and boosting their veteran enrollments. If we are able to work together on these five suggestions, we are confident that veteran enrollment will greatly increase at reputable, selective, and elite campuses nationwide.

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