Marching Forward

Ashley Thorne

Higher education’s interactions with the military have been a topic of interest for the NAS. Last year we published a special issue of Academic Questions on “arms and the mind.” That issue examined how liberal education is taught in military academies, as well how military history is taught in liberal arts programs. We at NAS believe that all Americans should learn military history in order to better understand the Western heritage and in order to better participate in the civic order of our nation. We also believe that our soldiers should be trained, not only in combat tactics, but also in the highest traditions of scholarship. 

This week, the military’s relationship with higher education dotted the news. First, the New York Times reported a huge increase in applications submitted to military academies this year. Applications to the Naval Academy are up by 40% (the Academy received 15,342, the greatest amount since 1988), and applications to West Point and the Air Force Academy are each up by 10% since last year.

Why are more high school students ready to march off (or sail off, or fly off) to join the military? One reason could be that in the economic downturn, the college-bound are looking for the best financial deal, and that a free education looks ever more attractive, even if it means pledging years of their post-college lives to service. Military academy officials, however, say that the recession is not necessarily the best explanation for the surge:

But those officials also said that students tended to have very personal reasons for applying to the military academies — patriotism, an abiding interest in the military as a profession or a desire to follow a parent’s footsteps among them — and that therefore the economy alone could not explain the upswing in applications.

The Times also suggests that the decrease in American casualties in the war in Iraq could also contribute to the greater interest in attending a military academy.

The second item of interest is Joanne Jacobs’ note on her blog that people who leave the military face roadblocks when they try to get academic credit for their military training—training that is usually more rigorous than that in a non-military university. Although the civilian job market eagerly hires veterans over other graduates because it recognizes the skills and discipline that the military instills, colleges may require veterans to retake classes they’ve already succeeded in. Military.com provides some insight here. It highlights the American Council on Education (ACE) Military Program, which helps veterans get college credit for their military experience. The ACE program seems to be the go-to resource for this, offering a number of handy guides, workshops, and presentations to aid veterans in their educational endeavors. But, says Military.com, ACE may not be able to solve all transfer problems:

In most cases, ACE-recommended credits will be used to fulfill your free-elective requirements, but each college determines the number of credits they will accept, and how they will be applied toward your degree. In fact, some schools may even choose not to grant any credit for military experience. That is why it is critical to shop around for the most "military friendly" school available.

The top three “military friendly” schools as of 2008, according to Military Advanced Education, are the American Military University, an online university for both civilians and those in military; Central Texas College, a community college in central Texas that “serves over 50,000 students on military installations, in correctional facilities, in embassies and on ships at sea”; and Coastline Community College, a college without a campus, where classes are offered at about 50 sites (such as shopping malls, senior centers, and banks) throughout the region in Southern California.

Such military friendly colleges may not be the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, but at least they’re “friendly.”

Yet there is hope of more options for veterans: the third piece of news this week, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), is an article entitled, “More than 500 Colleges Commit to Participate in New Veterans Program.” Colleges that volunteer to be a part of the Yellow Ribbon Program will offer reduced tuition for veterans, and “the federal government will match any financial aid that participating colleges provide to veterans above the cost of the most expensive public college in their state.” This will open up more possibilities for military students, who will now be able to attend private and out-of-state colleges at a lower cost.

The enthusiasm of the 573 colleges that have come to Yellow Ribbon agreements with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is an encouraging sign. Even though they are offering financial aid and not necessarily academic credit, taking part in this program seems to be a step toward military “friendliness.” But it’s ironic to see some colleges participating in this initiative, such as Harvard, which have banned ROTC on campus. Could it be that the matching funds from the government made the chance to throw a bone to the military more attractive?

Perhaps the Yellow Ribbon Program will motivate even more students to apply to the academies of the army, navy, air force, merchant marine, and coast guard. Those who enroll will find a much more difficult path than that of students at other colleges, but they will learn to strive for—as the West Point motto goes—“Duty, honor, country.” Non-military colleges could stand to benefit from adopting these values.

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