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Commentary: Select schools can do more for vet undergrads

By Thomas Burke and Daniel Fisher In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act into law, reforming the GI Bill so today's veterans could graduate from a college of their choice tuition-debt free. To be eligible for the full benefit, veterans w

By Thomas Burke

and Daniel Fisher

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act into law, reforming the GI Bill so today's veterans could graduate from a college of their choice tuition-debt free. To be eligible for the full benefit, veterans without a service-connected disability need 36 months of active duty service and an honorable discharge. In return, they receive full in-state tuition to any public college or are provided with matching dollars to meet the full cost of out-of-state or private tuition.

Since 2008, hundreds of colleges and universities have welcomed veterans on the new GI Bill, and, in 2015, more than 650,000 of 3.6 million post-9/11 veterans used it to pursue education. However, there are still more than 2.2 million post-9/11 veterans without bachelor's degrees, and many of our nation's most selective schools still struggle to matriculate veterans in their undergraduate programs.

For the past seven years, Wick Sloane, a professor at Bunker Hill Community College, has tracked veteran enrollment at selective colleges. According to his annual census, this year only 11 of Yale's nearly 5,500 undergraduates are veterans and three of Harvard's 6,700 undergraduates are vets. With an undergraduate enrollment of 5,400, Princeton is currently educating one veteran.

The reasons for this failure are complex, but one is clearly economic: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other selective colleges fail to maximize their voluntary contribution to the GI Bill for veteran undergraduates. This means that most veterans who attend those schools will not graduate tuition-debt free and are reluctant to apply.

Under the law, if a school's tuition exceeds the GI Bill's $21,970 base payment, the Department of Veterans Affairs Yellow Ribbon Program will match an institution's voluntary contribution - dollar for dollar - up to the full cost of tuition.

The most generous colleges use the VA's matching funds to ensure full tuition for an unlimited number of veterans. Yet too many colleges contribute little or cap the number of veterans who can exercise the benefit.

In 2016-17, only 11 of U.S. News & World Report's top 50 research universities and nine of its top 50 liberal arts colleges have undergraduate programs that maximize GI Bill support. Sixteen undergraduate programs do not participate at all, including the University of Pennsylvania's College of Arts and Sciences, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wake Forest University, and Haverford and Barnard Colleges. It is worth noting that neither President Obama's nor President-elect Donald Trump's respective alma maters, Columbia College and the Wharton School-Undergraduate Division, contribute support for veterans on the GI Bill.

Some selective colleges claim that their financial aid programs compensate for lack of GI Bill maximization. But case-by-case financial aid packages can lay claim to a veteran's savings or the GI Bill's tax-free housing allowance, both of which should be earmarked for other reintegration priorities: home, family, or health.

When searching for a school, veterans turn to the VA's online tables, which identify institutions that fail to provide full GI Bill support. Selective colleges that do not maximize their participation should not count on large numbers of veterans applying.

If you want to find relatively large numbers of veterans at select schools, look to Harvard's Law School, Yale's School of Management, or Princeton's Graduate School - all of which have maximized their GI Bill participation to cover full tuition, unlike their undergraduate colleges. As a result, at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, it's more common to find a former commissioned officer in a graduate or professional course on finance, law, or economics, than a prior-enlisted undergraduate in a seminar on The Iliad or The Odyssey.

In contrast, in 2009, Dartmouth College maximized its support for veterans. At the time, Dartmouth had a powerful advocate. Its president was James Wright, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who helped update the GI Bill. This fall, Dartmouth enrolled 24 undergraduate veterans, and it has committed to enroll at least 10 more every year. In Philadelphia, the exemplary schools fully supporting undergraduate vets include Temple, Drexel, and St. Joseph's Universities.

Each year, the post-9/11 generation of veterans gets older, and its members with the least formal education are less likely to pursue a bachelor's degree. They deserve the help of veteran alumni and of our political leaders to promote maximum GI Bill support and increased matriculation of qualified vets at selective colleges.

We ask veteran alumni to weigh their contributions and estate gifts to their alma maters against how many undergraduate veterans are currently enrolled and whether their college has maximized its support for the GI Bill.

The president, the president-elect, the VA, and Congress should encourage all colleges and universities, especially selective schools that enjoy tax-exempt status, to maximize their GI Bill support by Veterans Day 2017. Selective colleges should do all they can to participate in what was once a common American project: Successfully shepherding veterans back to civilian life.

Thomas Burke, a master of divinity candidate at Yale, served with the First Battalion Third Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Daniel Fisher, who recently earned master's degrees in business administration and public policy from Harvard, served in the Army in Afghanistan.