06/20/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

Getting Veterans Into College

A few years into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I assigned Ernest Hemingway's Soldier's Home to a class of first-year college students. The story tells of a veteran, Harold Krebs, who returns to Oklahoma long after the parades celebrating the end of World War I and the homecoming of its heroes. Krebs' family is relieved to have him home, but his community has moved on: "People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over." My students were shocked. Clearly, this story was a relic from some bygone era. We don't treat our soldiers like that anymore, do we?

To know for sure, we would have to ask a veteran. Unfortunately, in that class and the dozen I have taught since -- all of them required courses -- not a single veteran was enrolled. Granted, my sample is a small one, but I teach at a large university in southern California, a region that has one of the highest concentrations of military personnel in the nation. Like many others, the school offers extensive support services to veterans and active military students. However, from my perspective, the Field of Dreams philosophy -- "if you build it, they will come" -- did not seem to be working.

When I looked into the matter more carefully, my suspicions were confirmed. Despite the growing presence of veterans groups on college campuses, members of the military have been vastly underrepresented in higher education. According to a widely cited report published by the American Council on Education, in the 2007-2008 school year, veterans comprised just 4 percent of undergraduates nationwide. About half were enrolled in two-year public programs, while only one quarter were considered full-time students. All told, veterans accounted for barely 1 percent of the full-time student population at four-year colleges.

President Obama recently ordered schools receiving federal funds to keep better data on their veteran and active military students. More detailed figures should help further improve services for veterans once they are in school. But first they have to get there. The average high school student has access to the encouragement and advice of teachers and counselors as they navigate the college-application process. Veterans deserve a similar support network, one that appreciates the unique contribution they stand to make to college campuses.

With my sister, Jennifer Hoar, I founded Veterans College Bound to help build that network.

Veterans College Bound matches veterans with mentors who will advise them throughout the application process, particularly on written components like the personal statement. On the one hand, a veteran's application should need no polishing; their service speaks for itself. On the other -- and I speak from both personal and professional experience -- writing in a self-expressive genre can be incredibly uncomfortable, regardless of background. Throughout my own early education I thought writing about myself was a sin (I did start out in Catholic school). By 12th grade I found myself brainstorming the best way to frame my (lackluster) hockey career in a college essay. Suddenly, writing about myself was an essential skill, cultivated with the patience and insight of guidance counselors, teachers, and peers.

Veterans College Bound aims to create a productive environment where veterans can assemble competitive application materials and have conversations about their educational goals and options outside the influence of any particular institution. As they continue their educations, some veterans might wish to build on skills learned in the military. Others might choose to use school to start out on a completely new course -- to become "students" rather than "veterans." We draw on the expertise of our network of volunteer mentors in order to provide veterans personalized advice so that they might make the best decisions for themselves and their families.

Though the value of higher education has recently come under scrutiny, veterans still stand to gain significant benefits from further education. For one thing, college helps veterans translate their military training into credentials recognized in the civilian world. By gaining a degree, veterans amplify the investment they have already made in themselves. Also, recent data suggest that veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 are hit particularly hard by unemployment, with a percentage triple the national average. The statistics favor more education: Nationwide, the unemployment rate of those with college degrees is roughly half that of those with only a high school diploma. And finally, with veterans groups cropping up on campuses nationwide, schools are providing increasingly specialized services to help their student veterans adjust to campus life.

In talking about the wars our veterans have fought, we tend to emphasize the rights they are protecting. And yet college education remains more a privilege than a right in America. For those who risk their lives defending what we call our rights, this is one privilege we should try our utmost to extend.