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Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.
Vassar College's Thompson Library. (Photo: Noteremote/Wikimedia Commons)

Vassar College's Thompson Library. (Photo: Noteremote/Wikimedia Commons)

Military veterans continue to be underrepresented at America’s elite institutions, despite repeated and public pledges in their favor. Between 2011 and 2013, according to Insider Higher Ed, the number of undergraduate veterans fell in the elite group of schools known as the Ivies and the Little Ivies. In 2013, Yale University had just two veteran students. Princeton University had one. And Swarthmore College, none.

Even if they are qualified, low-income, minority, and non-traditional students—like veterans—shocked by the cost of tuition and afraid they may not fit in with a more traditional student body, often do not apply to institutions of higher education. And the students who do apply, enroll, and arrive are often met with social and psychological barriers as they struggle to navigate a world seemingly built for others.

Top schools, perhaps, simply have a problem bringing in students from all non-traditional demographics, veteran or not. Indeed, the New York Timesreported that years of programs aimed at bringing top-scoring lower-income students have failed to change the demographics of top colleges in any appreciable way.

I talked to Carl Callender, a former Marine and one of the few veterans at Vassar College, about his experience. Callender came to Vassar as part of the Posse Veterans Program, a new effort to bring vets to top colleges that offers four-year full scholarships for Vassar College and Wesleyan University. It also works socially: Once veterans are on campus, they regularly meet as a support group, or “posse.”

"Kids who go to these kinds of colleges, who will end up in the Senate and run companies one day—they should have an accurate picture of whom veterans are as people."

“It was a light bulb moment,” Bial, a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, says. “There are several million veterans, a lot of them haven’t gone through college, and they’re not choosing colleges like Vassar.”

Callender, for example, said he would never have ended up at place like Vassar without the program. In fact, he had never even heard of Vassar, a highly selective liberal arts school where the acceptance rate for 2014-15 was 23.5 percent, with a sticker price of $61,140 a year. After leaving the Marine Corps, Callender struggled to support himself and his daughter. He had decided to further his education, but he thought he had to settle. “I had missed the boat—the Harvard boat, the Yale boat,” he says.

The program seemed like a godsend. Still, when Callender, a black Marine veteran and 35-year-old father from Jamaica, Queens, came to Vassar College he found his experiences differed vastly from the youthful strivers on campus. "I have to be honest, when I’m at Vassar, it’s not my niche,” he says. “I’m comfortable there, I feel like that the Vassar community wants me there, but it’s not my niche."

His fellow students were incredibly welcoming, for the most part, Callender says. But at times he chafed at the stereotypes his peers held about his military background. Do you have post-traumatic stress disorder? Do you have a traumatic brain injury? Have you killed anybody?

"Sometimes I didn’t feel like I had a friend in the world, but knowing I had the others helped,” says Callender, who is glad to be a part of a group of veterans going through the same process at the same time. “That really eased the transition. I wouldn’t have failed, but it would have been an incredibly different situation."

Is it necessary for outcasts to be with people with similar experiences? In a conversation with a student in the Posse Foundation’s main program, what emerged was the idea of difference as humidity: Imagine moving to a place with intense humidity, the omnipresent kind that surrounds you at all times. Other people may be used to the humidity, but you, of course, would occasionally try to find a place where the humidity can’t reach you—inside perhaps, where there is air conditioning.

But Kyle Foley understands that peer groups also have limitations. Foley, a Navy veteran, began classes this fall at Wesleyan University, the second institution to create a veterans posse. She enjoys hanging out with her posse, but she is the only woman and the only gay member. There will be times when her group simply won't be the support system she needs, says Foley, who plans to find some female friends and reach out to the LGBT community.

In many ways, reaching out is the point. The lack of veterans at top colleges points to the growing gap between civilians and veterans in America. If this gap continues to grow it will create a generation vulnerable to mystification and worship of the troops, both of which make addressing actual problems harder. It will create a generation ready to support but too ignorant to be helpful.

Foley, for instance, says she feels it’s important she shows her identity as both a person and a veteran. “Kids who go to these kinds of colleges, who will end up in the Senate and run companies one day—they should have an accurate picture of whom veterans are as people,” Foley says. “I can see how it can be trying at certain points, but I think it's important to know about veterans issues and know veterans personally."

Callender made a conscious effort to reach out over the course of his first year at Vassar College, and his discomfort eased. He fondly remembers the day he spoke up during an urban studies class. That day, he said, he was no longer the veteran in the back of the class, but a student. Now, within Callender’s posse, the joke is that he's so popular he’s the mayor of campus.

Is it so simple? Put veterans together, make them feel included, and the floodgates will open and veterans will come to elite college campuses? It’s hard to see if the main draw is the posse model, or four years of free tuition—or something else entirely.

Still, this could be the beginning of something much larger. A recent study shows that simply knowing someone connected to a highly selective school can significantly affect whether or not students apply there. In the end, the largest impact may be not on the veterans who come through the program, but on those not yet in class, whose conception of what is possible may actually change.

Consider the day Callender took his daughter Kylie to Vassar College’s bucolic campus—his campus. On that trip, the 10-year-old told her father that she wanted to attend Vassar one day. The difference in situation was not lost on Carl.

"I was 35 and had never heard of Vassar. She's 10 years old and already thinking she wants to go there," he says. "I didn’t even see this as a possibility. I felt that I missed that boat. I felt I had to settle. And now things like this are possible."