<< The Body Politic

Fewer vets at elite schools?

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Last December, Congress amended the G.I. Bill fully covering tuition at public schools but placing a $17,500 cap on tuition and fees for student attending private universities. The cap will save the government money, and is intended, in part, to encourage private universities to increase their Yellow Ribbon aid.

With looming defense cuts, the decision to cut back on tuition reimbursements–particularly to pricey elite schools–is not unreasonable. Yet, as with the ROTC, lawmakers need to consider more than just budgetary bottom lines. It may be more expensive to fund student vets at Columbia University than at State U, but their presence at top campuses like Columbia  is critical to restoring ties between elites and the military. As a Columbia student vet explains:

“Because there’s no draft anymore, most people aren’t connected to the military,” said Dan Lagana, GS and the president of the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University. “They’re not connected to the wars we’re funding or the people that are fighting the war. Having veterans in school with you, in class with you, helps bridge that divide, that disconnect.”

By their simple presence, student veterans can help break down stereotypes and remind their fellow students that military service is an honorable calling. A recent Pew study found that while 82 percent of veterans would recommend the military to a young person, fewer than half of Americans would do so. This can be explained, in part, by the well-known burdens placed on servicemembers during two long and increasingly unpopular wars. But much more of it has to do with how little Americans know about the day-to-day life of those in uniform. For the most part, popular culture depicts the military as either superheroes or victims–a job description that, not surprisingly, puts off a lot of young people without other experience of military life.

The Pew report helps to explain some of the advantages of military service–a sense of pride, personal growth and maturity, self-confidence, improved interpersonal skills, the opportunity to challenge oneself–but the only way to truly change people’s perception of  military life is to make the military more visible to them. It’s striking to compare how top investment banks recruit students; as Yale English major Marina Keegan writes, few students arrive at Ivy League schools planning to work on Wall Street, and yet by the time they graduate, 25 percent will have entered the consulting and finance industries. The high salaries aren’t the main pull, Keegan notes. Instead, Wall Street aggressively recruits, repeatedly visiting campuses to interview anxious students who have little idea how to otherwise get a job. A few years at Goldman Sachs (or, just as frequently, law/business school) quickly becomes the default option while students try to figure out exactly what they want to do with their lives.

To be sure, military service is not quite the same “low-risk” option, and it doesn’t come with a great apartment in Manhattan. It does bring real rewards, as the Pew respondents attest, and like Goldman Sachs, it needs to make those rewards more apparent to students. Student veterans at top schools can offer their peers a positive example of military service and a fuller understanding of life in the armed forces.

Already, student veterans are helping to heal old wounds. Just this past weekend, Columbia University sponsored a float in the city’s annual Veterans Day parade, inviting all its veterans, past and present, to participate:

According to GS Dean Peter Awn, the school decided to sponsor a float after considering the hostile treatment of Vietnam War veterans who returned to Columbia’s campus in the 1970s.

“We simply wanted to reach out to people who really may have thought that Columbia could never ever do anything that would be positive for veterans,” Awn said. “The invitation was what mattered, the sense of reaching out and saying, ‘We want you back.’”

To its credit, Columbia is continuing its efforts to actively recruit veterans. The military must reach out, too.