Monday, November 14, 2011

"After surviving firefights, sitting on a college campus with someone who doesn’t like me is the least of my worries"

Today's New York Times has a great article on Columbia's aggressive recruitment of military veterans for undergraduate study. Columbia now has more than 200 veterans enrolled, while its closest Ivy competitor, Cornell, has approximately 50. (We won't speak about the shamefully low figure enrolled at my own alma mater.)

I've thought a fair amount about veterans in the classroom over the years, for a number of reasons: I come from a military family; my former long-term partner teaches at one of the service academies (as he did for five of our six years together); and I've taught quite a few veterans myself at RU. But although there's a lot to say about this article, what most strikes me is the way it seems to align with the argument I made a while back about the limited kinds of diversity one can expect at elite colleges: it's not surprising to me that Columbia, which is located in a big city and already has a robust undergraduate program aimed at nontraditional students, and Cornell, which has the largest undergraduate population of the Ivies, are doing the best job recruiting students who are a bit older and have significant non-academic life experience.

As I wrote in that earlier post, elite colleges that are devoted to a residential model--and especially smaller elite colleges, located in smaller communities--seem to have a harder time imagining what it would mean to add older students (or married students or students with meaningfully different academic backgrounds) into the mix.

But there's no reason for this to be true. Although the student population at RU could certainly be more cohesive, quite a lot of our students, including transfer students or those who have taken several years off, elect to live on or right near campus, as a part of the academic community, and it's not uncommon for students to forge friendships with other students who are a number of years older. Surely elite colleges could preserve their academic standards, maintain a sense of communal identity, and diversify their student bodies in new and important ways--with veterans for starters, but perhaps also with other older or returning students--if they tried. Kudos to Columbia for showing them how.


FLG said...

A goodly portion of the nontrad students at Georgetown are veterans. Not that there are a ton of them, but there was a small cohort of nontrads, and I was the only non vet.

Withywindle said...

College of General Studies is administratively autonomous and has always been open to non-trad students. as the article says. Without proof, I wouldn't say Columbia as a whole is into recruiting veterans. If you haven't, you should read Amanda Cross' , on this very subject forty years ago.

Veralinda said...

Several of the women's colleges do a wonderful job with this (enrolling older students, I mean, not recruiting veterans). For example, Smith's Ada Comstock Program is for returning students, for women who never got (or finished) their degrees for one reason or another. Women from age 25 to 85 have enrolled in the program, and at one point they made up fully 10% of the campus (300 students out of 3000). I think the number has dwindled a fair amount recently, due to the higher costs of running this sort of program. But it's been very successful, and faculty often express that these are among the students they most enjoy teaching. Mount Holyoke has a similar program, and I believe a few other schools do too.

Flavia said...


I understand that the admissions/recruitment is done separately, and my post noted that this is a longstanding program aimed at nontraditional students. But to the best of my knowledge, they're in the same classes with regular undergraduates.

The other Ivies also have programs for nontraditional students. But unless the article was for some reason deliberately not talking about those programs at other Ivies, while doing so when it came to Columbia, my point remains exactly the same.

Withywindle said...

Ah, true, I missed that sentence in your post; sorry. Are the comparable programs as big as General Studies?--I somehow thought it was sui generis. I thought your post focused on admissions decisionmaking by the colleges, not classroom experience; I think it is relevant to consider whether the standard Columbia admissions folks are Not More Enlightened than their peers.

Flavia said...


I'm quite sure none of the other programs are as big, though the program at Smith that Veralinda mentions sounds comparable, as a percentage of the total undergraduate population. Yale's, for example, is tiny--less than 1% of the total undergraduate population--but it's comparable to Columbia's insofar as it seems to have as its goal the incorporation of academically-strong nontraditional students into the regular academic life of the college.

So yes, you're right that Columbia has a preexisting structure in place that is going to mean their numbers overshadow everyone else's (something that the NYT article doesn't seem properly to have accounted for, and to the extent that my post emphasized the raw numbers, I'm in error, too). But that's no reason that other elite schools couldn't learn from Columbia's example and increase the number of their nontraditional students. Maybe not to 1,300, but surely they could get to 100 or 200!