THE BLOG
09/22/2012 05:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2012

When It Comes to Education, Veterans Sometimes Aim Too Low

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The young man sitting before me served in the Marines for eight years and is now enrolled in a community college, where he is making excellent grades. In Iraq and Afghanistan he planned and carried out complex military maneuvers and led men into battle. He is obviously a very smart guy. "Why don't you consider transferring to a more challenging school?" I ask him. "I just never thought of it," he answers.

After a while, he comes up with other reasons: "I don't know if I could compete in a big university." "It has been a while since I took my SATs." "I don't have the money." These are all valid concerns. Some of our transitioning military were not stellar students in high school. Often they were too young and immature to exercise the self-discipline required to excel. Others were good students, but, at seventeen, were simply not yet ready for college. Now, out of school for years, they are nervous about retaking college entrance exams and competing with younger, more academically conditioned peers. Still others are coping with medical issues that limit their ability to study.

Furthermore, higher education is expensive, even with the help of government programs. The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill pays full tuition at a state university for in-state students or up to $18,077 per academic year at a private institution, with a stipend for books and living. Some state universities are among the finest in the nation, and for veterans living in locations with excellent public university systems, a state school might be the best option. However, tuition at many top-tier private universities exceeds G.I. Bill benefits. Tuition at the University of Pennsylvania is $42,098. Three quarters at Stanford University is $41,250 and at Northwestern, $43,380. In addition, students must allot roughly $10,000 to $15,000 for books and living. Vets are older than the general student population and many are married with children. Those who already have serious financial responsibilities are often reluctant to go into debt to acquire a high-priced education.

However, ambitious, talented veterans shouldn't sell themselves short. They can overcome the obstacles. After years of service in Iraq or Afghanistan, the apathetic seventeen-year-old has matured. Some universities are willing to overlook the SAT requirement for returning veterans who took the tests more than five years ago. Veterans needing to ease their way back into academic life or fulfill requirements can complete a year at a community college and then apply to transfer to a more competitive one. Moreover, although The New York Times reports that some public research universities are trying to recruit students who don't require financial aid, many excellent private universities (Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Northwestern) maintain a need-blind policy, which means that admission does not depend on the applicant's financial status. In addition to a university scholarship, student veterans at these institutions can usually count on Yellow Ribbon funds, Pell grants, or scholarships from other sources, including military organizations, to make up the difference between the G.I. Bill and total tuition. And many schools waive the application fee for military.

Veterans who do attend competitive institutions are usually highly successful. These young men and women are motivated, focused, and efficient at time management. They not only excel academically, but enhance the general academic environment. With their experience as base administrators, platoon commanders, team leaders, pilots, intelligence officers, and liaisons between local decision-makers and the U.S. military, student veterans bring to campus a wealth of knowledge and leadership skills, enriching the university in and out of the classroom. In my over thirty years as a professor at Georgetown, I have never worked with more dynamic and hardworking students. Many top schools now actively recruit veterans. Georgetown is initiating a Veterans Admission Project (GVAP) to encourage qualified veterans to apply. Columbia University has long welcomed veterans into their General Studies program, allowing them to transfer to other programs if they are successful.

Education is the best investment veterans can make in their own future. The Department of Labor reports an overall unemployment rate of 10.5 percent for veterans with only a high school degree, while veterans with at least a bachelor's degree have an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent. Well educated veterans are in demand. It pays for veterans not only to go back to school, but to get the very best education they can.

Naturally, a high-powered school is not for everyone. There are perfectly valid reasons for choosing other options. Some veterans who work during the day may need to study part-time. For them, the flexible schedule of a community college or a continuing education program is more suitable. In addition, these programs often offer a wide range of fields, such as paramedic or paralegal, not available elsewhere. Veterans contending with medical issues or academic deficiencies may prefer the slower-paced environment of a less competitive institution. And, of course, some veterans who want to continue their educations are simply not inclined to embrace the relentless pressures of a first-rate private or state university. Having experienced the strain of battle, they now crave a less stressful environment.

Still, for those who have the aptitude and drive, a top-tier school may be within reach. Veterans often tell me that they didn't apply to one because the education officer on base never suggested it or, like my young friend, they "just never thought of it." I tell them: "Be informed. Explore the possibilities. And don't be afraid to aim high."