Princeton Trails Columbia in Welcoming Vets to Ivy League

John Around Him left Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for the Army and served in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He never imagined he’d end up at Dartmouth College five years later, or that veterans would be such an unknown commodity at an elite school.

“I sort of came in thinking that the administrators knew all about me or knew about my situation,” Around Him, a 29- year-old senior, said in a phone interview. “It was disconcerting that they had no idea what to do” about navigating financial aid and other services a veteran might seek, he said.

Almost three years after the Post 9/11 GI Bill took effect, boosting tuition for veterans and their dependents, many elite schools have enrolled few of the more than 2 million troops who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. As those wars wind down, the paucity of veterans at top colleges stands in stark contrast to their prevalence on the same campuses following World War II.

Princeton University said it has four veterans enrolled. Yale University has filled 13 of the 50 slots set aside under the so-called Yellow Ribbon program designed to provide federal financial aid to former soldiers. Around Him is one of 16 undergraduate veterans on Dartmouth’s campus.

“We’re extremely underrepresented” in the Ivy League, Matt Thompson, a former Army Ranger and graduate of Harvard Business School in Boston, said in a telephone interview.

Some schools have initiatives that make them more successful. Veteran enrollment at Columbia University is up 87 percent to 459 since 2009, and Harvard University has about 250.

Reshaping Society

More than 2.2 million World War II veterans went to college on the original GI Bill, according to Keith Olson, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland in College Park. The influx reshaped American society and expanded access to private universities.

Veterans dominated most campuses they were on, including those in the eight northeastern U.S. schools that make up the Ivy League, Olson said in an interview. He recalled a 1946 Time magazine article that said: “Why go to Podunk College when the government will send you to Yale?”

Princeton, in Princeton, New Jersey, had 2,500 veterans enrolled after World War II, including returning students, according to a 1947 university report. Princeton paid “close attention to the academic readjustment of veterans returned to college,” the report stated. “Since a high proportion of such veterans presented special problems, individual handling involving personal interviews and consultation with advisers was necessary.”

Commitment Lacking

Such a commitment is lacking at many selective colleges today, even though Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may need more help than their predecessors in making the transition, veterans groups say. In some cases, colleges don’t know how many veterans they have on campus, said Brian Hawthorne, who served in Iraq and is a board member of the Student Veterans of America in Washington.

Unlike the World War II draft, which drew from every segment of society, many veterans who served in the volunteer military in Iraq and Afghanistan come from poor and working- class families. They may be intimidated by the idea of going to an elite college and have difficulty qualifying under criteria such as high-school grades and standardized-test scores.

While these campuses often offer special programs -- summer preparatory classes and on-campus facilities -- to attract minorities and under-represented groups, most don’t do the same for returning soldiers, veterans say. The Common Application, used by more than 400 colleges, including the Ivy League, asks candidates about their veterans’ status in addition to other demographics such as race.

‘No Effort’

Most Ivy League schools also don’t advertise in veteran’s publications to signal they welcome returning military, Hawthorne said.

“They’re making no effort to find or prepare” veterans said Wick Sloane, a professor at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, who tracks veterans’ enrollment at colleges. Bunker Hill has 450 veterans, Sloane said in a phone interview. “These colleges have such wealth that they can have a student body composed of whatever they want to have. If all of these schools decided to have 100 veterans, they could do it.”

Columbia did. The New York-based school started a General Studies program in 1947 to accommodate the influx of WWII veterans. The program now serves nontraditional students, who have been out of high school for a decade on average. Columbia also sent a dean to a California military base to recruit students.

Harvard, Cornell

Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, holds a special orientation on campus that includes veterans and has filled almost 250 of its 325 “Yellow Ribbon” spots. Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, has 93 veterans, more than the 78 slots it set aside. The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has 66 veterans in the Yellow Ribbon program and 145 total.

“Veteran students add to the academic experience for all the students in the classroom,” Curtis Rodgers, dean of enrollment at Columbia’s School of General Studies, said in a phone interview. “A 17-year-old from one of the best private high schools in the world sitting next to a 28-year-old who’s had three combat tours -- you can imagine how that affects the conversation in the classroom.”

Harvard has an annual Veterans Day celebration, and Thompson said that was a key event for him. His classmates asked him to host a lunch session detailing his service. Thompson obliged, telling stories and showing video footage of real combat situations. He said non-veteran students accepted him “more than I could have ever imagined.”

Yellow Ribbon Program

The Department of Veterans Affairs has issued $15.8 billion in GI Bill payments supporting more than 667,500 veterans. Its Yellow Ribbon Program gives tuition supplements for more expensive private schools or for out-of-state residents attending state schools. Each of the 2,500 participating colleges determines how many spaces to set aside for veterans and what they are willing to offer in excess of the $17,500 the VA covers annually. The VA will then additionally match the school’s designated amount.

Most veterans turn to local community colleges and online schools for their education. Seven of the top 10 schools by veterans admissions are for-profit colleges, including Apollo Group Inc. (APOL)’s University of Phoenix, Ashford University and DeVry University. Florida State College at Jacksonville and Tidewater Community College-Virginia Beach are also in the Top 10.

‘No Prohibition’

Princeton, which says it has four veterans on a campus of 5,249 undergraduates and 2,610 graduate students, has “no prohibition against veterans and we encourage and consider their applications like all others,” Martin Mbugua, a university spokesman, said by e-mail. Princeton, which costs $52,670 a year to attend, has a needs-blind admissions policy and meets “the full assessed need of all qualifying students,” he said.

Princeton would need “a very special effort, a very systematic approach” to bring more veterans to campus, said Paul Miles, a retired colonel who served 30 years in the U.S. Army and is a lecturer of history at the university.

“The environment at Princeton is very welcoming, which is different from saying Princeton is going out on the streets to recruit,” Miles said.

Brown, Dartmouth

While Brown University, which has 12 former military members on campus, considers veterans’ status “a positive attribute,” it doesn’t evaluate their applications differently, Mark Nickel, director of university communications, said in an e-mail. The school in Providence, Rhode Island, has created an office for veterans and ROTC and is reaching out to local community colleges for potential transfer students, he said.

Dartmouth, which has 20 ex-soldier graduate students, is seeing “an increased level of interest for veterans who are considering pursuing undergraduate study here,” Latarsha Gatlin, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Dartmouth encourages veterans to come to campus before enrollment to meet other veterans and work on issues like housing and VA benefits, she said. The school also has had a designated contact for former military members.

Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut, has 50 spots for veterans set aside under the Yellow Ribbon program and 13 are filled, though officials say an additional two dozen veterans are enrolled in the university’s college and professional schools.

“We do not extend a special admissions preference to veterans, but we would consider it a positive feature with respect to personal accomplishment” and diversity of the student body, Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions, said in an e-mail. Yale has a program that advertises in military publications and admits five to 10 nontraditional students for undergraduate degrees, he said.

Culture Clash

Attending an Ivy League campus can be lonely, veterans say. Around Him, the Dartmouth student, said he keeps to himself on campus, having little in common with his fellow scholars at the Hanover, New Hampshire, school and preferring to concentrate on his studies.

“It’s harder for non-traditional students to find social spaces at a school like Dartmouth,” said Around Him, who is studying education and intends to return to his reservation to teach. Almost half of veterans who have used their GI benefits went to a school with a well-defined veterans’ presence of more than 300, according to Veterans Affairs data.

The gap in life experience makes veterans feel older than their age, when they’re already older than most classmates, returning soldiers say.

Drinking Beer

Going from “losing friends everyday” in combat to drinking beers on Thursday with younger classmates is jarring, Blake Hall, a Harvard Business School alumnus and former Army captain, said in a phone interview.

Yale’s student veterans group is trying to bring more ex- military members together for camaraderie, Josh Ray, 27, a former Navy engineer, said in a phone interview.

Yale should look to recruit more, Ray said.

“There’s a lot of talent,” Ray said. “It’s not being developed, it’s not being utilized. It should be and it will be helpful to the nation to target these guys and get them back into school.”

Away from the Ivy League, Fordham University in New York is becoming a magnet for veterans. Less than three years ago, it had 30 on campus. Now there are 300, according to the school.

Fordham Program

The growth spawned a pilot program last year specifically designed to help veterans acclimate. Edge4Vets, formed by veterans and Tom Murphy, a professor in Fordham’s Education School and Human Resiliency Institute, gives ex-soldiers the confidence and skills to use their service to their advantage.

“We find they come into school a fish out of water,” Murphy said in an interview. Organizers plan to expand the program to other universities and community colleges in New York this year.

Daniel Hodd, a 28-year-old Marine Corps reservist, came to Fordham on the recommendation of a captain he served with. The school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program and a veterans support network were huge draws, he said in a phone interview. The program hooked him up with a mentor -- a vice president at Siemens AG who has been “a well-connected sounding board,” Hodd said.

“I’ve adapted fairly well,” Hodd said. “It’s a transition in my mind that never really ends.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Theen in New York at atheen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net

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