College contemplates changes to recruitment of veterans

In 1793, Williams was founded by a colonel in the French and Indian War, and it remains an institution with an extensive history of student and alumni involvement in the U.S. military. Despite its history, the College does not currently have any veterans of the U.S. military enrolled. The current College administration is beginning the groundwork to improve how it recruits and accommodates veterans who might be interested in attending the College. While veterans can apply and be admitted to the College just as any other student can, accessibility is a problem that is currently under discussion. Just as administrations decades before have considered the relationship between the military and higher education, so too is the current administration reopening that conversation by making recruiting veterans an important initiative in the coming years.

The College’s military history

During World War II, the College made many changes to accommodate veterans who had been drafted or who had voluntarily joined the military. One of the webpages from the History of Science program at the College reports that in the spring of 1943, the Navy’s V-12 program was set in place and designed to train officer candidates at the College, Harvard, Holy Cross and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. According to the website, “440 apprentice seamen came to Williams that July. While still on active duty, these men would continue their college training.” Issues of the Record throughout 1944 and 1945 reflect how integrated the V-12 men were at the College. “[The College] gave up its social system because it was a big national project of educating all of these G.I.s,” President Falk said of the post-WWII era. “[It was a very different period] then, and because the population changed so much, everything changed at the College.”

The College also saw this program as a way to link two institutions – the College and the military – with similar goals. At a graduation ceremony in 1945, the Record reported that then President Baxter made the focus of his speech “the responsibilities of college graduates after the war” (“Twenty-nine Degrees Conferred February 25; Many in Absentia,” March 14, 1945). The article quoted him as saying, “Small group instruction in the Army as well as on American campuses has proved the best way to develop initiative and leadership.” Baxter saw both the Army and American universities as working toward the ultimate goal of producing educated leaders of society. Despite the differences between the College in 1945 and the College today, both administrations agree on the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship between students of the College and those who participate in the military.

Admissions of veterans 

Currently, there are no veterans of the U.S. military enrolled in the College. The Admissions Office reports that last year there were two transfer applications to the College from veterans. One of these students was admitted to the College but chose not to attend. There is no information on the admissions website or the financial aid website directed to veterans who are considering applying to the College, so veterans who are looking for information relevant to their unique situations may find doing so difficult. “We became aware that there wasn’t as clear an awareness on the part of veterans of our existing policies and practices,” Falk said. Both Amherst and Wesleyan have pages on their admissions and financial aid websites dedicated to applying as a U.S. veteran.

Further, discovering the College may be a hurdle for veterans, as the Office of Admission does not currently send officers to army bases to recruit. Director of Admissions Dick Nesbitt ’74 noted that for the past two years, Admissions has had a designated staff member to coordinate admissions and to serve as a resource for veterans applying to the College, and that the administration is currently working to improve and clarify some of these shortcomings.

“We are intending to step up our efforts in recruiting veterans starting with our own website, which is not very explicit,” Jim Kolesar, assistant to the President for public affairs, said. “In the next couple months there are plans to have a page for veterans on the admissions website and on the financial aid website. [We also plan] to do visiting to military bases with admissions officers, which we’ve never done before.”

Nesbitt confirmed the plans for changes in the admissions process. “We recognize the need for specific information for veterans on the web, so as soon as our admission decisions for the Class of 2017 were released in late March, we turned our attention to designing a page for veterans,” Nesbitt said. He also mentioned that earlier this spring, the College reached out to the admissions offices at Amherst and Wesleyan to initiate a pilot program that “would involve ‘Little Three’ group travel to two Marine bases. We have tentatively agreed to such a joint effort in the upcoming cycle,” he said.

Financial aid for veterans

The level of financial aid offered at the College is another important aspect of increasing the College’s accessibility to veterans. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill was enacted on July 30, 2008, under President George W. Bush to provide financial support for education and housing to those who have served in the military after Sept. 10, 2001, according to the G.I. Bill’s website. The current G.I. Bill states that it pays for “all resident tuition [and] fees for a public school; [and] the higher of the actual tuition [and] fees or the national maximum per academic year for a private school.” Institutions of higher education can opt to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program to make extra funding available. The College is a part of the Yellow Ribbon Program and currently has a maximum school contribution cap of $5000, a number that is about average to most of the College’s peer institutions. This cap will soon be removed, however, as the College has decided to make the amount of money that can be donated by the College and matched by the Yellow Ribbon Program unlimited. According to Kolesar, the College has also decided to treat all honorably discharged veterans as financially independent.

“One of the College’s other values, in addition to having a diverse student body, is to never award financial aid above demonstrated need for reasons of fairness and limited resources,” Kolesar said. “It was conceivable in [the College’s former] program that you could have a student who qualified for aid through the Yellow Ribbon program that would be above their level of demonstrated need. So we thought that one way of limiting that would be to put that $5000 cap on it. But it looks like you would get less financial aid at Williams … so they changed it.” The cap is misleading because it does not represent a cap on the need-based aid that a student would receive from the College, but instead a cap on the amount of money to be matched by the Yellow Ribbon program. To clarify this misunderstanding, the cap will be removed all together.

POSSE

The question of veterans attending private institutions is one that peer institutions are also addressing. The Posse Foundation, Inc. (Posse) launched the Veterans Posse Program in 2012 with the hope of increasing the number of U.S. veterans who attend selective colleges and universities, according to the organization’s description on its website. Traditionally, the Posse Foundation “is one of the most comprehensive and renowned college access and youth leadership development programs in the United States,” similar to the Questbridge program that the College uses to connect with high-achieving, low-income students. The Posse Veteran Program is beginning in partnership with Vassar. Vassar President Catharine Hill ’76 and the Vassar administration decided to join the Posse Program after having discussions about recruiting more veterans, similar to those occurring at the College this spring.

“It turned out to be difficult to recruit veterans, for a variety of reasons. We weren’t having much success,” Hill said. “The Posse Program offered several advantages.” Included in these advantages, Hill mentioned Posse’s successful model for recruiting underrepresented students, its ability to create a community of veterans at a school and its success in supporting students involved. Alumnus Wick Sloane ’76, who wrote an op-ed for the Record on this subject, also commented in an e-mail on the benefits of the Posse program (“Where are all the veterans?” April 10). “Veterans need two things: Sleep and other veterans,” Sloane said. “That’s where the Posse idea comes in. Veterans don’t need hundreds of other veterans. Posse serves this purpose by sending a group into this new, at the start, hostile territory. Since these veterans will have worked together before, they will arrive at Vassar with a group of people they know.”

In regards to Posse, the College administration says that it is interested in seeing what happens at other institutions. “When I learned that Posse was doing a pilot with Vassar, what I said to the president of Vassar and what I said to my colleagues at Posse, was that I am very interested to see how that works out,” Falk said. “If you learn some lessons there that are of interest in how to recruit and support veterans, I’m really interested in learning that.”

The administration also stressed that they feel that the College’s project of recruiting more veterans should be done on an individual basis – individual to each veteran’s experience and individual to the unique issues of the College. “Like all of our students, the term ‘veterans’ covers people with a broad range of ages, life experiences and military service. So, we would be considering each of their cases on an individual basis when we consider the kinds of support we would want to offer to make them at home on campus,” Steve Klass, vice president for campus life, said. “Our resources and our scale allow us to individualize our support in a way that reflects our institutional culture and lets us respond to the unique life experiences of the people we’re recruiting.”

Student Reflections

With the hope of recruiting more veterans on the horizon for both the College and peer institutions, the changes that would have to be made and the value of veterans at an academic institution are both topics of discussion in the College community. As described by Falk, the residential life program at Williams, particularly for first-years, is very structured. “That’s probably one of the reasons that we attract very few applicants who are not either in high school or close to finishing,” Falk said.

While there are not many non-traditional students at the College, there are a few international students who are veterans themselves, just not of the U.S. military. Martin Soderstrom ’14 is 24 years old and was a Forward Observer in the Swedish Royal Marines before coming to the College. His experience, in addition to a few others, including RakDong Lim ’15, who is a veteran of the Republic of Korea Army, may be the most helpful examples of what changes to make if more veterans enroll at the College.

“I don’t think that the community meets the needs of those who have had experience beyond what the ‘normal’ Williams student typically has,” Soderstrom said. “I didn’t really enjoy the entry experience because of the gap in experiences and personal development between me and my entrymates. Had I known then what it means to be in an entry at Williams, I would have tried to find another living situation. Still, I recognize that since everyone is in entries in their first year, not being in an entry can have a socially isolating effect.”

“This college, and colleges like us, have a very strong tradition of people coming essentially straight from high school, or a year out or two years out, and our residential life program and other things are structured with the assumption that this is approximately people’s first experience away from their families,” Dean Bolton said. “There are all kinds of complexities about what is a fit and what is not a fit for students for whom that is not the case.”

Despite these potential challenges, many people within the College community feel strongly that adding more veterans to the Purple Valley would prove to be very valuable for the entire community. “Since we believe that education is enhanced by having a variety of life experiences, [veterans] are very likely to enrich the experience of all students here,” Kolesar said.

Another option for students who wish to pursue both higher education and a career in the military is to attend Williams before doing their service. There are currently three graduating seniors commissioning upon graduating and going on to join the Marines: Hill Hamrick ’13, Caleb Hoffman-Johnson ’13 and Tim Morris ’13. While these students chose a more common path at the College of pursuing a degree before joining active service, they unanimously agreed on the benefits of having veterans who had already been in active duty. “I think Williams [would] benefit even more from the presence of veterans since their experiences are so unique from the rest of the country’s … Veterans who are our age have incredibly meaningful and powerful life experiences which are tough to match in terms of intensity and significance,” Hamrick said. Hoffman-Johnson also commented on the value veterans can add to the classroom, particularly as a political science major. “Their experiences impart a dedication and discipline that absolutely translates into the rest of their lives. The character values and seriousness that military service instills can apply incredibly well to an academic environment. I think especially if you have a larger group of veterans, that would have an extremely strong impact on the content and quality of class discussions.”

“I would love to see veterans for whom Williams is an appealing place and who are well prepared to succeed here,” President Falk said. “If veterans who would like to be here and who would be successful here aren’t coming, that’s a real problem for us. And we’ve got to do something about it.” It is that problem that is, and will continue to be, a source of discussion at the College and at institutions across the nation.

  • howard

    Great article. You did sugar coat it a bit though… Williams has the worst veterans record in the United States. Zero after over a decade at war. All your peers have moved past Williams long ago.
    I suppose the good part is that if the college gets one, the school can proclaim a 100% increase! The other good part is that with any luck, the dozen years at war in Afghanistan will be over when the college finally proclaims victory with this current surge.

    All snark aside, great research and well executed. Outstanding job.

  • howard