As race-based affirmative action programs are increasingly called into question, many universities seek diversity through other means. By expanding their applicant pool to include more veterans, universities might achieve not only a more desirable racial and economic balance, but also a greater diversity of experience and perspectives.
This issue made headlines last fall when the Supreme Court heard arguments challenging the University of Texas' policy of considering race as a factor in college admissions. Abigail Fisher, a white applicant, alleges the university discriminated against her by denying her a spot in 2008. A ruling is expected by next June and will apply only to public institutions, but no matter what the decision, affirmative action policies based solely on race and ethnicity may be on the way out. Many universities have devised alternatives--for example, guaranteeing admission to the top ten percent of high school students in state schools or increasing need-based scholarships in private schools. But, as Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in the New York Times (March 28, 2013), if top colleges really want to recruit talented students from diverse backgrounds, "they might take a cue from one institution doing a truly stellar job: the military."
Racially and economically, veterans constitute a more varied group than the student populations of many universities. Contrary to popular belief, our wars are not being fought primarily by the poor and minorities. The racial and ethnic makeup of the military actually reflects roughly the demographics of the nation, except with regard to Hispanics, who are underrepresented. According to the Department of Defense, about 65 percent of enlisted soldiers are white, 13 percent are black, and 13 percent are Hispanic, while the figures for the general population of males between 18 and 24 years old are 62, 12, and 20. These numbers contrast with the ethnic and racial makeup not only of many elite private schools, but also of many state schools.
The military also mirrors the nation fairly closely in terms of family income, although the DOD reports that enlisted recruits are actually more likely to come from middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, with a median family income roughly that of the general population: $49,777 in 2009. However, the military does recruit from all economic strata and provides training to make soldiers competitive when they transition out. In spite of generous financial aid packages, many universities, especially private ones, draw from a more affluent pool. According to the Columbia and Stanford University web sites, median family incomes at these schools are $93,113 and $125,000, respectively.
However, the kind of diversity that veterans bring to campus transcends standard measures. Veterans are unlike from their college peers in terms of experience and maturity. These young men and women spent their post high-school years differently than their classmates. They have seen combat, interacted with foreign populations, and developed leadership skills. Older than the average undergraduate, some are married, with families to support.
University administrators appreciate the diversity veterans bring to campus. The Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., president of Fairfield University, notes: "At Fairfield University we have been privileged to welcome veterans into our community. They bring a wealth of experience and skills, of course. But most of all, they bring a wealth of understanding of the human condition, born often through the suffering that leads to compassion. We are grateful to have them here."
Timothy A. Barbari, Associate Provost for Graduate Affairs at Boston University, shares these sentiments: "A diverse campus is one that brings together students who have experienced life through various lenses and use those experiences to enhance the education of others. While culture, race and gender are the more traditional lenses through which life is viewed, veterans bring a very unique perspective to college and university campuses. Older than the traditional student, the veteran has seen life through international conflict and on-the-ground humanitarian aid, invaluable experiences that enrich the classroom in incalculable ways."
Michael J. Horswell, Associate Interim Dean at Florida Atlantic University, is also a professor of languages and world literatures. He is particularly impressed with veterans' international experience and the insight it gives them. "I find the veterans in my classes to be more engaged with the kinds of cultural studies we do given that they have had international experiences that many of my other students have not. They bring unique perspectives to class discussions, share insights from living and working abroad, and often offer an understanding of the complexities of global issues that cannot be learned from a book. In addition, I find that many veterans are more dedicated to learning second or third languages, since they have seen the value of cross-cultural communication first-hand, and even in life-or-death situations."
Today, some educators are questioning the effectiveness of traditional preference systems. Dan Slater, writing in The New York Times (March 16, 2013), suggests that such systems might actually be harmful to the very students they were designed to help. W. Ralph Eubanks points out in The American Scholar (Spring 2013) that current racial classifications are flawed, as DNA testing and the influx of multiracial immigrants have undermined our traditional notions of race.
What I am advocating is not affirmative action for veterans. Veterans I have interviewed unanimously reject set-asides, lowered standards, or special applications for transitioning military. What I propose instead is enhanced outreach programs to encourage veterans to continue their educations. Increasing our college veteran population would benefit not only the veterans themselves, but also the institutions that welcome them.