The GI Bill: One of the last great economic ladders?

Marines in front of Columbia University's Alma Mater statue. (Photo: Matt Mireles)

The Post-9/11 GI Bill was supposed to change where veterans could go to college by giving them more money, and, therefore, more options. But since the new bill went into effect in 2009, the percentage of veterans enrolling at four-year public and private nonprofit schools has barely budged.

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary From Boots to Books, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).


Wick Sloane teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. A few years ago, he started to notice more veterans in his classes. One, in particular, impressed him.

“The first paper he handed in was so good I knew we just had to move him on,” says Sloane.

He encouraged the student to apply to Dartmouth College, but the student thought he was nuts.

It didn’t sound that crazy to Sloane. But he wondered if his student might be right — that guys like him didn’t go to Ivy League schools. Sloane started asking around to see how many veterans end up at elite schools. What he found shocked him. There were very few veterans at the top colleges and universities. Some had one or two. Some had none at all.

“I think it’s appalling,” Sloane says. “We send these men and women off to war and part of taking care of them is bringing them home and welcoming them. And when you have Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Williams slamming the door, sending the signal to higher ed and society that veterans can’t do that kind of work, it’s insulting and it’s inexcusable.”

Reported Undergraduate Veterans in Regular Degree Program

2013 2014
Amherst College 8 5
Barnard College 0 0
Brown University 12 11
Bryn Mawr College 0 0
Carleton College 0 0
Columbia College 0 0
Columbia U. School of General Studies n/a 360
Cornell 1 *
Dartmouth College 14 *
Duke University 1 1
Georgetown 25 81
Harvard University * 4
Johns Hopkins University 23 19
MIT 2 0
Mount Holyoke College 0 2
Northwestern University 14 19
Oberlin College 0 *
Pomona College 1 1
Princeton University 1 1
Rice University 1 0
Smith College 0 0
Stanford University * 10
Swarthmore College 0 *
Trinity College * 10
University of Chicago * *
University of Pennsylvania 35 35
University of Rochester 16 *
Washington Univ. in St.Louis 20 21
Wellesley College 2 2
Wesleyan University 2 11
Williams College 0 0
Yale University 2 3
Total 180 596

SOURCE: Inside Higher Ed, “The Devil’s Workshop” column, Nov. 11, 2014.
(n/a means data was not collected. * means the school did not respond)

Sloane writes a column for Inside Higher Ed. Every year since 2011, he’s published a tally of the number of veterans at the nation’s most selective schools. He hasn’t seen the needle move at all, and he says colleges really aren’t trying.

“They could have as many [veterans] as they wanted – the same way they could have as many trombonists and physicists and football players as they wanted,” Sloane says. “If you want to bring in vets you have to adapt and do some work.”

Sloane has focused on the dearth of veterans at these selective institutions because he believes it’s particularly important that those schools make veterans welcome.

“When you have Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Williams slamming the door, sending the signal to higher ed and society that veterans can’t do that kind of work, it’s insulting and it’s inexcusable.”
–Wick Sloane, Inside Higher Ed columnist and Bunker Hill Community College Professor

Andrew Bacevich, a political scientist who’s also a retired Army colonel, agrees.

“Like it or not, the way our country works, it’s those selective institutions that produce the next elite,” says Bacevich.

“From those institutions come the people who influence the direction of society: Justices, Senators, Presidents, CEOs,” Bacevich says. “In particular, for a country that places such emphasis on using military power, I would argue that it’s very important for that elite to include some people who have had firsthand military experience.”

But a minority of the veterans who use GI Bill money to go to college will end up at elite schools, and four-year schools in general.

In 2008, the year before the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, about a third of student veterans went to four-year public or private colleges. Today about a third still do. The rest go to for-profit schools and community colleges. But the student veteran population is growing fastest at the for-profits.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics.

Very little guidance

Gus Giacoman is a former Army infantry captain who deployed twice to Iraq. He’s a West Point graduate, so he when he was thinking about separating from the Army, he didn’t have to worry about how to make the transition to college like the enlisted men and women who served under him. But he was thinking about using his GI Bill benefits to go to grad school, and he noticed that the only schools that recruited heavily on military bases were for-profits.

“Veterans are targets for for-profit universities,” Giacoman says. He thinks that many for-profit schools “prey on soldiers for their GI Bill money.”

The for-profit sector has been investigated by the U.S. Senate, because students at for-profits are much less likely to finish than people who go to other colleges.

This is not to say that for-profit schools aren’t a good choice for some students. They offer flexibility and they’re more likely than nonprofits to make it easy to take classes in the evening or online.

But for-profits are expensive. They cost almost twice as much as public schools. Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, taxpayers have spent $7.9 billion to send veterans to for-profits. That’s more money than went to all public colleges in America put together.

Source: Veterans Benefits Administration.

Source: Veterans Benefits Administration.

“We are as a nation … investing a lot in the GI Bill,” says Giacoman, “and we want that GI Bill money to give us the best return that we can. And the best return in my mind is having an education that’s going to set someone up to be extremely productive in society.”

One problem is that service members don’t have a lot of resources to help guide them to a college that’s a good fit for them.

The Department of Defense runs an 88-hour mandatory course called Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for service members who are “separating” from the military. But most people say TAP doesn’t help match veterans with colleges. It’s a lot of sitting around listening to presentations. One veterans’ advocate called the program “death by PowerPoint.”

“Traditional students can sit down with a guidance counselor and cast a net across the whole country,” says Craig Bryan, director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “The service member doesn’t have that freedom.”

In response to this gap of information, Gus Giacoman helped found an organization called Service to School, which matches veterans with counselors to help them work on their college applications. Giacoman says Service to School isn’t trying to get all veterans to go to elite schools.

“I just want a veteran to go to the very best school that they can,” he says.

“Schools nowadays have a box you need to fit in … and if you don’t fit into that mold so well, they don’t really know what to do with you.”
-Alex McCoy, Former Marine and student at Columbia University School of General Studies

Studies show that people who attend four-year colleges are likely to earn much more over a lifetime than people who don’t. Service to School works to get more veterans into those colleges.

Giacoman says administrators tell him they want veteran students but they don’t know how to get them.

Catharine Bond Hill, President of Vassar College in New York, has spent her career thinking deeply about the question of how to get underrepresented students into selective schools like Vassar. For a long time she focused on low income and minority students. But a few years ago, Hill realized there was a group she had overlooked: Almost no veterans were showing up on her campus.

“I think the exact same lessons for recruiting racially and economically diverse students hold for veterans,” says Hill. “You have to go look for them and you have to convince them that it’s a good option.”

Hill realized she couldn’t sit back and wait for veterans to come, so she teamed up with an organization called the Posse Program, which helps Vassar identify promising veteran applicants. Today Vassar has 29 veterans. Two other selective colleges are also working with Posse to recruit veterans, and the program plans to expand to other schools.

“If we could get 10 schools to do it, it could be 400,” says Hill.

But more than a million veterans have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to go to school since 2009. Comparatively, 400 students at elite schools seems like a drop in the bucket. And most colleges don’t recruit veterans aggressively. Many of them actually discourage veterans from applying — not on purpose, but by assuming their applicants are all high school seniors.

A school for actors, dancers, models… and veterans

Alex McCoy being presented with a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal by John Emerson, United States Ambassador to Germany, on November 1, 2013. (Photo: Sarah Sexton)

Alex McCoy being presented with a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal by John Emerson, United States Ambassador to Germany, on November 1, 2013. (Photo: Sarah Sexton)

Alex McCoy didn’t do well in high school. He grew up on military bases, and moved around a lot as a kid. When he was about to graduate from high school, his dad signed him up for visits with recruiters from every branch of the military. The Marine representative who came to his house convinced him that the Marines would give him some focus and purpose. McCoy ended up guarding U.S. embassies overseas for six years. It was during his time serving with the Department of State that he realized he wanted to go to college. But when he began trying to apply to colleges, he got frustrated pretty quickly. There was no way for him to explain the gap in his schooling.

“Schools nowadays have a box you need to fit in,” says McCoy. “That box is designed for traditional students … and if you don’t fit into that mold so well, they don’t really know what to do with you.”

McCoy says that the colleges he applied to could not understand he wasn’t about to graduate from high school. One school required a letter of recommendation from his high school guidance counselor, even though McCoy had been out of high school for six years, and didn’t think his (retired) guidance counselor would even remember him.

Instead, he got a letter of recommendation from his commanding officer, a letter from an official at the department of state, and a letter from the US Ambassador to Germany. But college admissions offices didn’t seem to care.

Then he heard about Columbia University, which has a college especially for nontraditional students: the School of General Studies. It was founded to serve GIs returning from World War II. In the decades that followed, veteran enrollment dropped and other nontraditional students took their place.

Alex McCoy with acceptance letter from Columbia. (Submitted photo)

Alex McCoy with acceptance letter from Columbia. (Submitted photo)

When the Post-9/11 GI Bill came along, Curtis Rodgers, vice dean of admissions, thought, “Here’s a chance to return GS to its roots.” He started heavily recruiting veterans. In 2008 there were just 60, but by fall of 2014, there were more than 400. One of them was Alex McCoy.

“So here I am, sitting on campus, looking at the big domed libraries, amazing architecture, and all the preppy students walking around with their Columbia sweatshirts,” recalls McCoy. “I thought wow, I snuck in somehow, I’m going to take advantage of this mistake.”

A lot of service members assume they can’t get into places like Columbia. And even the people who are supposed to be helping them make the transition to school sometimes aim too low. Curtis Rodgers goes to a lot of military installations as part of his recruiting efforts. At one base, he says, an education officer asked him: “Why are you here?”

Rodgers says the officer told him, “These students can’t go to Columbia. They’re not ready for a place like that.”

But Rodgers pushed back: “To me, that seemed ridiculous because you know, I really should be the judge of that.”

Rodgers says the veterans he’s admitted have indeed succeeded at Columbia. But just as importantly, he says, the experiences they’ve had while serving add to their value in the classroom.

“Those experiences inform the way you view the world,” Rodgers says. “They inform the way you think about problems. They inform your intellectual path — what you want to do in the future. And that’s what we’re seeking out. We want students who had those experiences because it changes the conversation. And you want a diverse student population because that makes the discourse that much deeper.”

Both veterans and campuses benefit

Columbia offers a Middle Eastern studies class called “Post-Occupation Iraqi Narrative.” One morning, the class is discussing the looting of antiquities that happened after American troops invaded Iraq in 2003. There are two veterans in the class and five nonveterans.

One young woman says American soldiers raided Iraqi art ruthlessly. But one of the veterans in class disagrees with her. His name is Kevin Anderson.

“To be fair,” Anderson says, “there was a lot of effort placed on preservation.”

Anderson tells the class that the military did work to preserve cultural artifacts. In fact that was one of the jobs his Army unit did when he deployed to Iraq.

“Somebody would plan an attack,” Kevin goes on, “and somebody like me would do an overlay on a map and they’d have to change their approach to avoid agricultural or architectural structures.”

Still, he concedes, “Don’t get me wrong; many things were destroyed unnecessarily.”

This leads to a discussion about the responsibility of the occupier to protect cultural artifacts. And the need to consider multiple viewpoints when looking back on what happened during wartime.

Anderson is 31. He’s a junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies. He says when he first got to campus, he was intimidated by how smart the students seemed – those who had come straight from high school. But after a few months he realized that, in a lot of ways, he knew more about the world than they did.

Kevin and his wife Kalie live about an hour and a half from Columbia, in an apartment in Bethel, Connecticut, with their 2-year-old son, Jackson. Kevin is a stocky, bearded guy with a jovial New York accent, and Kalie is petite and soft-spoken. They met as Army medics in Afghanistan.

Today they’re both using their GI Bill benefits to get their degrees. She’s at NYU. Neither of them ever thought they’d end up at top-tier schools.

“Growing up in Indiana,” Kalie says, “I’d never heard of Columbia or NYU — they just didn’t talk about schools on the East Coast.”

Kevin joined the Army because he didn’t want to go to college — he wanted to be a police officer. But he couldn’t go to police academy until he was 21, so he enlisted. Before Kalie enlisted, she was going to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis part time and working low-wage jobs at a bowling alley and a grocery store.

Now Kevin says he’s thinking about going to law school when he graduates. Kalie would like to work in human resources. They want to move out of their apartment and buy a house.

But they say the most important thing college has given their family is more options for Jackson. When it comes to the Army, they don’t want him to follow in their footsteps.

“My son’s not enlisting in the service,” says Kevin. “I busted my ass so he doesn’t have to. ”

The post-9/11 GI bill has given more than a million veterans the chance to go to school. Over the coming years, more than a million more will use their GI Bill benefits for education.

Advocates for veterans say more of the men and women who served could use those benefits at four-year colleges, if only those colleges would do more to recruit and support them. The success of Columbia’s College of General Studies demonstrates that if colleges open their doors, veterans will come. And many will thrive there.

Columbia student Alex McCoy says he wouldn’t be in college and thinks he’d be doing a service job somewhere if he hadn’t joined the Marines and had the GI Bill benefit.

“I think that the military and the GI Bill is one of the last great economic ladders for people like me,” says McCoy. “I really strongly believe that you shouldn’t just get one shot at life, and getting that second chance is something that I really value about the military and about Columbia for letting me be here.”

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary From Boots to Books, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Episode: From Boots to Books