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Over There, Over There; Or, Where Are All The Soldiers On Your Campus?

November 14, 2010, 8:16 pm

Where are the demobilized soldiers on your campus? Well it depends on where you teach.  But if you are at a top liberal arts school, chances are they are “over there” at a community college.

According to Wick Sloane, writing for Inside Higher Ed, when it comes to enrolling veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, elite colleges have to admit that those students aren’t there.  Zenith made a big announcement a couple of years ago that it was going to reserve a single spot in each entering class for a demobilized soldier, but we haven’t heard much about it since, and — well, is one spot enough?  I would think not, particularly when you consider the difficulty of creating relationships with other young people who (blessedly) haven’t experienced anything more violent than a car accident or a football game.  Bunker Hill Community College, where Sloane teaches, enrolls almost 350 veterans; between them, Harvard and Yale enroll 4 (surprisingly, Mount Holyoke, a women’s school which is about the size of one entering class at Harvard or Yale) enrolls 3 veterans. The College of William & Mary (a state-funded institution that enrolls over 8,000 undergraduates and graduate students) is at the top of the list with 24.  Several institutions wouldn’t answer the question, which I thought was rather small of them.

In response, one veteran writes in the comments section that the sentiment for inclusion is laudable, but in practical terms, elite colleges price themselves out of the average soldier’s range and may not offer what they need. “Many [people] can’t afford college and therefore enlist in the military either as a career move or to take advantage of the educational benefits, [t]he latter of which was my reason for joining,” he observes.  “Even with the assistance of the GI Bill and other veteran’s benefits they cannot afford the selective institutions. I, coming from middle class family, simply could not afford to even look at many of the selective institutions. Yes, I had the test scores and the high school GPA to get in but there was no way I could have ever hoped to afford the sticker price, even with my educational assistance.”  A second reason, he argues, is that after two years in the military, many soldiers want to get on the fast track to a career and want a more “professional education” than a liberal arts college provides.

This all sounds right to me, and yet shouldn’t elite schools be trying harder?  It’s difficult to believe that if elite schools tried to recruit students from the military they couldn’t do it, and that schools with massive endowments couldn’t commit some of that money to helping soldiers take on the burden of elite tuition and fees.  War veterans can present a challenge in terms of the physical and emotional burdens they bring back from combat, but meeting those challenges would cause schools to be more generally thoughtful about what they do not yet do well for all students.  Furthermore, not all veterans have been in combat, but many have gained the kind of maturity, ambition and discipline that would make them valuable members of any class.

I am curious about what it will mean for this current generation of students to know so little about a war that has altered the lives of many Americans in their age cohort, not to mention millions of people in the Middle east and South Asia.  For those historians who are making a list of why the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are different from other wars, add to that the ten years of elite college students who will go into the world, and into policy-making positions, only vaguely understanding the ways in which war alters communities, marriages, families, and individual lives. They will make decisions, in fact, that send the next generation to war without having understood this one in anything but an abstract way.

Addendum:  this week’s required reading about the relationship between teaching, the liberal arts and military service is Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute:  A Soldier’s Education (Penguin Press, 2009.0

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