By Corri Zoli, Daniel Fay, Sidney Ellington, and David Segal
(Re-published from Military Times | July 27, 2017) A question: “How many active and former service members are there in the United States today?” What’s your best guess? It may surprise that for an accurate answer, you won’t be able to turn to the Veterans Administration (VA), the US Department of Defense, nor the Department of Education or the Census Bureau — these agencies can’t reliably or consistently answer this question either.
Likewise, despite the well-established role of the GI Bill in transitioning veterans to civilian life, we do not know how many veterans take advantage of this hard-earned benefit. Nor do we have a good handle on how well veterans do in school, which degree programs they choose, or whether they achieve success in post-service careers.
“Big data” — the tracking of our lives and habits — might be one of the buzzwords of the moment, but when it comes to keeping demographic track of service members and veterans, big data is still in its infancy.
Why should we care about such data?
Because without it, it is nearly impossible for Americans to ensure that veterans are getting a good return on taxpayers’ $14 billion-a-year investment in their education and whether they are successful transitioning out of service.
Furthermore, despite our own research and some important new efforts by the Student Veterans of America, lack of information can easily become a lack of concern for an important generation of Gulf War and Post-9/11 military veterans.
Making matters worse, colleges and universities are not asked whether they actually help veterans get the most out of the GI Bill on campus and beyond. For instance, the Obama administration’s 2012 executive order (establishing “Principles of Excellence” for schools) had no reporting metrics, and even though more 250 campuses registered for the “8 Keys to Veterans Success” (a 2013 Department of Education and VA initiative), this program also included no follow-up assessment or metrics. Some schools are exceptions, like Syracuse University, Columbia University, and perhaps new efforts at Wesleyan.
What we do know is that half of all veterans choose not to use their hard-earned GI Bill benefits, and that many veterans who do go to university face cultural and bureaucratic barriers, even discrimination. Yet our research also indicates that, given service members’ training and professionalization, many veterans are “pre-qualified” for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, among other professions. However — again with some exceptions — few pipelines exist inside the academy to match veterans’ skillsets to degrees and jobs.
Distressingly, elite universities that should be leading the way for others are falling down on the job. Most Americans don’t realize how few veterans are enrolled at top colleges. GI Bill recipients comprise nearly 5 percent of the national collegiate student population, yet less than 1 percent of top 20 universities. Moreover, Inside HigherEd’s Wick Sloane notes that among the Ivy League, only Columbia University stands out, with 375 student veterans in 2016. Other Ivies enrolled just 62 service members total in 2016, with just one veteran at Princeton and three at Harvard.
Yet we know that universities can rally quickly to serve populations they deem “underserved.” Nearly 50 campuses, including the entire Ivy League, signed a letter opposing President Trump’s Jan. 27, 2017, immigration order, which academic leaders claim undermines support for vulnerable foreign, immigrant, and undocumented students. Although most universities advocate for “diversity,” this concept rarely includes student veterans, despite the fact that the military is the most demographically diverse institution in American life.
So why is there not a greater push to help student veterans seeking educational support? How long will veterans on and off campus remain demographically “invisible,” thanks to federal data research priorities, or underserved in higher education, thanks to lack of oversight and a narrow understanding of “diversity”? …
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Photo: Senior Airman Jasmine Helm-Lucas working with data in June 2017 at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. (Airman 1st Class Daniel Brosam/Air Force)