In Veterans

Basic Training for Higher Ed

What colleges could learn from the military about serving low-income students


Was Daniel M. Piston college material?

A decade ago, as a high-school student in Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Piston didn’t think so. He lacked focus. His grades were so-so. And it wasn’t like he was surrounded by college graduates; of his family, only his mother had earned an associate degree.
“The truth is,” Mr. Piston says, “I didn’t think I was smart enough for college.”

After finishing high school, he signed up for an automotive-technology program at nearby Onondaga Community College — a similar course his senior year was the first thing he had been any good at, he says — but, still unmoored, he dropped out after two semesters. He found himself on the doorstep of the local Navy recruiter. The Navy promised excitement, and it offered something else: a life path.
Mr. Piston became a helicopter crew chief, serving missions to support ships in the Persian Gulf and provide humanitarian assistance to earthquake-devastated Haiti. His six years in the Navy instilled discipline, perseverance, and a belief in himself, and, at the urging of his military mentors, he began to think about returning to school. He ended up back in Syracuse, at Syracuse University. In May, the guy who didn’t think he was college-worthy graduated with honors. He plans to go on and get a master’s, maybe even a Ph.D.

Mr. Piston, now 29, is smart and hard-working, but even so, the odds were against him. First-generation college students like him, kids from low-income families, and racial or ethnic minorities — even those who are plenty bright, with diligence to spare — are less likely than their peers to go to college and even less likely to graduate.

In the military, however, the class divide breaks the other way. Analysis of recruitment data has found that young people from lower- and middle-income backgrounds are overrepresented in the armed forces. The less your family makes, the more likely you are to serve.
College’s socioeconomic fault line is hardly a revelation, but it shouldn’t be an enduring reality. That’s what David A. Longanecker, who just stepped down after 17 years as executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said on a recent visit to The Chronicle: that he didn’t believe we ought to accept such inequities. After all, he said, there’s another institution out there that takes in 18- to 24-year-olds and prepares them to get jobs and contribute to society. With populations that colleges struggle to reach and serve, the military seems to have more success.

Of course there are real distinctions between the two institutions. Enlisting promises an immediate paycheck, while in higher education, the costs are upfront and the benefits longer term. Though some colleges are open access, and some recruits wash out of the military, in general the latter has lower barriers to entry. Young people apply to college with the hope of being selected; to join the service, they simply sign up.
It’s also worth recalling that the military hasn’t always come by its diversity easily. Integration was by order. Post-Vietnam unpopularity and the move to an all-volunteer force compelled military leaders to recruit far more aggressively — and, some would argue, to focus those efforts on poor and minority populations.

Still, the two institutions have enough in common that the proposition seems worth exploring. Each confers individual benefits, providing personal and professional development, while meeting a public good. For lessons in better attracting and retaining underrepresented students, should higher education look to the experience of service members? The country’s future — and therefore colleges’ — is poorer and less white. Could Uncle Sam hold the answers, at least some of them, for best reaching that population?
They air during the X Games and March Madness, are sandwiched between trailers for the latest blockbuster at the movie theater, pop up in Facebook feeds.

They are ads for the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. They feature the quick cuts of a video game, heart-pounding action, and stirring scenes of burly soldiers protectively cradling crying children.
Combined, those four branches of the military plan to spend about $575 million in the next year on advertising, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Such vast resources to influence public perception and bring in new recruits dwarf the marketing budgets of college-admissions offices. Yet the real contrast isn’t about money, observers say, but approach.

Colleges’ marketing efforts have grown in sophistication since the days of simply mailing viewbooks to high-school juniors who made a good showing on the PSAT. Even so, few traditional nonprofit colleges have unleashed the kind of full-throated publicity blitz that the armed forces regularly do. While a university might erect a billboard touting its part-time M.B.A. program or sign on to sponsor a local sports team, typically only for-profit institutions mount mass advertising campaigns.

“There’s a sense in traditional higher ed,” Mr. Longanecker says, “that advertising yourself is déclassé.”

He isn’t suggesting that colleges buy up all the available airtime on their local television stations. Public institutions, in particular, might face pushback from lawmakers over such a use of taxpayer money. Rather, the military’s investment in advertising, Mr. Longanecker and others suggest, is part of a broader philosophy of proactive engagement. It’s not just about swaying a largely self-selecting group that has already shown some interest, as colleges tend to do, but about reaching out to those who might not have seriously considered their next step.

“The military approach is kind of a push approach,” says Sidney Ellington, executive director of the Warrior-Scholar Project, an organization that runs academic boot camps to prepare veterans to apply to top universities. “The college approach is more of a pull. It’s ‘Oh, you go to our website and it’s all there. You can figure it out.’”

Go to the Air Force’s recruitment site, and you’re immediately prompted to enter your ZIP code. Up pops the address and contact information for the closest recruiter, along with directions to get there.

When Mr. Piston, the Navy veteran turned college grad, was considering enlisting, he got in his car and drove the couple of miles to a local recruitment center. There he was able to sit down with a recruiter who explained the enlistment process and helped him figure out the career options he might have in the military. Over several visits, the man answered all the questions that Mr. Piston and his parents had. “It was definitely a positive experience,” he says.

Contrast that with one young woman’s full eight-hour day going from office to office to try to register for classes at a local community college. For first-generation and nontraditional students unfamiliar with the workings of a campus bureaucracy, such situations can be next to impossible to navigate. If that woman hadn’t been accompanied by her brother, already a student at the college, she might have given up, says Tanya Ang, director of veterans’ programs at the American Council on Education, who shared the story. “We have to make certain that there are no wrong doors,” says Ms. Ang, a former college registrar, “that we’re not turning students away.”

For the military, bricks-and-mortar recruiting offices serve as a front door, with the recruiter a greeter and guide to help steer prospective service members through the enlistment process. In practice and by necessity, college recruiters often “parachute in,” says Brian T. Prescott, of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, showing up in the community once or twice a year for a fair or information session.

Perhaps it is unrealistic for institutions, whether with a regional or national footprint, to have a day-to-day presence, to set up storefronts in places with low college-going rates. The lesson that colleges should take away, says Daniel J. Kaufman, a retired brigadier general and a former president of Georgia Gwinnett College, is one of outreach.

“We can’t just assume they will always come to us,” he says. “We need to say, ‘We’ll go to you.’”

General Kaufman spent five years as provost at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his alma mater, before signing on as the Georgia public college’s first president in 2005. Leading a start-up college with an access mission, he quickly realized that early engagement was key.
So Georgia Gwinnett started reaching out to students as young as fifth grade, dropping in on their classes, busing them in for visits, and hosting summer camps focused on math and technology. The college also sought to build relationships with their parents, most of whom had not attended college themselves. The focus wasn’t on one-time contacts, but sustained connections.

Being a consistent presence helped establish trust, says General Kaufman, who stepped down in 2013. From an inaugural class of 100, Georgia Gwinnett today enrolls more than 11,000 students. Of the 8,000 full-time students, 57 percent receive Pell Grants, the federal aid for low-income students, a share about 20 percentage points higher than the national average.


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