Veterans' Contributions to Higher Education

No sector in American society has benefitted more from the deep relationship with our veterans than higher education. Today, on this centennial anniversary of the World War I armistice, and on the occasion of our national Veterans Day, it is fitting that we not only salute those from every service and station who have fought for our freedom, but also recognize their invaluable impact on America’s institutions of higher learning. 

Across our shared history, this consequential impact is reflected in examples that are as distinguished as they are numerous. From George Washington, who called for expediency in establishing a national university and a military academy; to Ulysses S. Grant, who sought the formation of an “institution of learning, or university of the highest class in Washington D.C;” to Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose linear path from military leadership to the presidency at Columbia University set in place a leadership track that many follow to this day, including University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven, College of DuPage President Ann Rondeau, and Kansas State University President, Richard B. Myers.  

However, it was a paradigm shifting piece of legislation in support of America’s “Greatest Generation” that provided the most significant, collective impact on the growth and trajectory of higher education. Prior to World War II, a college degree was largely an unreachable dream for most Americans, let alone veterans from earlier war fronts. In fact, veterans traditionally received few benefits after the fighting stopped. That changed on June 22, 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill. Instead of entering the job market after World War II, millions of Americans returned from the front lines and assimilated into civilian life by opting for college. So many, in fact, that in the peak year of 1947, veterans accounted for half of all college admissions.  

By the time the original G.I. Bill ended in 1956, roughly half of our 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program. These trained educators, healers, artists, and leaders radically transformed the face of higher education in America, driving a major expansion in institutional growth, raising academic and national standards, and cementing college as the cornerstone of middle-class American life. This important shift also significantly altered the enrollment balance between public and private colleges. Prior to this legislation, student enrollment was evenly split, but after the passing of the G.I. Bill, the number significantly tilted in favor of public institutions. This enrollment gap has now widened to an eighty-twenty split, in part, from the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill signed in 2008, and its expansion and modernization last year, which has swelled veteran undergraduate enrollment to one million, the largest increase since World War II.

As we reflect on this positive growth and change, we are also reminded that “To those to whom much is given, much is required.” While it’s important today to recognize our veterans’ significant contributions to higher education, we can do more by redoubling our efforts to recruit, retain and graduate all those who have served us so well. 

For nearly three quarters of a century, the G.I. Bill has provided veterans an important pathway to transition from the battlefield into civilian life. Each year, approximately 200,000 veterans transition out of service, and of which, slightly over half enroll into college. We can do more to reach and recruit this population by not only ensuring their military training and experience is converted properly into academic credit, but by also providing crucial innovative educational pathways, such as the new pilot program established through the VA Mission Act of 2018, which supports four years of medical school education and costs for two veterans among each of five Teague-Cranston Schools and four traditional black medical schools beginning in 2019. 

We also can do more by opening up doors to our nation’s finest academic institutions. Some progress has been made over the last five years, as the number of Post 9/11 G.I. Bill users on Ivy League campuses has grown by over a third. Most recently, Princeton University admitted its first transfer students since 1990. 

Additionally, in our collective effort to recruit student-veterans, we must ensure that large and exploitative higher education corporations can no longer use predatory tactics to solicit veterans into their programs. This is a problem that’s gone on for far too long, and it’s time to end this misuse of trust. 

Moreover, in our efforts to retain our student-veteran populations, we must take our cue from leading post-secondary institutions to push back against one-size-fits-all policies and engage these students with non-traditional approaches. This includes everything from providing more flexible and online course schedules to preparing our faculty and administrators with strategies and campus resources to better approach student-veterans. According to a recent survey by Kognito and the University of Utah, only a quarter of college faculty and staff members said they feel adequately prepared to discuss concerns about mental health issues with student-veterans. Getting this right is not only essential to meeting the daily needs our student-veteran population, but also our broader efforts around retention and graduation. 

However, in the end, we will be judged in these worthy pursuits largely by our graduation ledger. Currently, only 52 percent of veterans graduate in four years, as compared to nearly 60 percent of younger, non-veteran peers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In addition, less than 20 percent of those receiving G.I. Bill money graduate with a two-year degree, while the proportion of these students attending part-time and graduating within three years is less than 10 percent. These numbers are staggering, but they also speak to our broader responsibility to graduate all students in a timely manner. 

As we look ahead, let us recall the words uttered one hundred years ago today by President Woodrow Wilson announcing the armistice ending World War I. The former university president noted, “We know, too, that the object of the war is attained; the object upon which all free men had set their hearts; and attained with a sweeping completeness which even now we do not realize.” Let us heed Wilson’s words to attain the objectives laid out here in a sweeping completeness that honors all who have served and sacrificed in the darkness of war so we can rejoice in the glory of autumn.

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