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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Remarks by President James Wright at the Annual NAICU Meeting

James Wright: The Yellow Ribbon Program and Private Colleges

February 2, 2009


Good afternoon! First, let me thank President McGowan for that very kind introduction and welcome. I would also like to extend my gratitude to David Warren for the invitation to speak on a subject that is so important to higher education and to me personally. But more critically it is important to a lot of remarkable young men and women who can make our institutions the better and our society the stronger. I greatly appreciate all of the work done by NAICU staff and member institutions to make this conference possible.

Two weeks ago many of us sat mesmerized before our televisions as we watched the inauguration of the United States' forty-fourth president, Barack Obama. Regardless of individual politics, it was a moving occasion - the sight of the first African-American taking the presidential oath just a few decades after Blacks won the right to vote in this country. I told some students that I was not so sure that their generation could fully appreciate what this moment symbolized. I had spent a winter in Mississippi fifty years ago when I was an eighteen-year-old Marine from a small town in the Midwest and was shocked by what I encountered. President Obama's inauguration indeed marked a different world in ways that most of us could not have predicted then. The substantive work of extending to all equality and opportunity is surely not finished, but the symbolism as well as the accomplishment this occasion represented should cause us to pause in shared pride.

While watching I reflected on what a privilege it is to be a part of a nation capable of redressing injustice within its own borders and unafraid of adapting to meet the challenges of a global economy. We are fortunate to live in a place that holds freedom of thought and speech among its core values - two values central to the lives of academics - and a country with an unparalleled tradition of intellectual leadership.

As you well know, with privilege comes responsibility. Higher education remains one of the most important paths to individual success and a critical means for national achievement and the attainment of global understanding. If our country is to succeed and to play a positive role in an international context, we must ensure access to postsecondary education for all our citizens. Accomplishing this will be both one of the greatest opportunities and the biggest challenges we will face in the twenty-first century.

My focus today is on but one of the tools and the means to move us to our goal of expanding access and opportunity.

It is my hope, and indeed my expectation, that we will meet this challenge and that the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, including the Yellow Ribbon Program, will play a significant role in this endeavor, as did the 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act (or G.I. Bill) for previous generations.

As a historian, I cannot resist the opportunity to speak about the 1944 G.I. Bill. I want to talk about its consequences for the veterans who received benefits and to consider the impact it had on higher education institutions and our country as a whole. The broad positive impact of the bill makes a compelling case in support of the current GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program

From 1942-1944, the years of the GI Bill's development, President Roosevelt's attention was largely on wartime strategy but he could never drift too far from thinking about the postwar economy. The great depression was still fresh in the minds of many Americans, and most anticipated that when the war ended the country would again be plunged into a financial crisis. The Serviceman's Readjustment Act was among the many proposals developed.

It called for the development and expansion of educational and training opportunities for veterans. While Roosevelt and others recognized that the Readjustment Act would help veterans resume educations disrupted by the war and serve as a means to thank them for their service, they primarily viewed it as a means to strengthen our economy. The author Keith Olson wrote, "To prop up the postwar economy Congress could have poured money into corporations, as it did in the 1930s,...;it could have created jobs, as it did during the New Deal...;it could have curtailed the profit motive and moved toward a planned economy,.... Instead, Congress chose...the veterans." It was, by today's terminology, a stimulus plan!

Regardless of the initial intent, the results went far beyond what anyone could have predicted. Thousands - then millions - of men and women suddenly had the financial means to attend any institution that would admit them on their academic record. For the first time, education was no longer for the wealthy and white alone. Institutions once considered off-limits to all but the elite were open to all, for few institutions could refuse qualified students when the government guaranteed payment of their bills!

Unsure of the reception awaiting them at upon their return from war, African-American vets found that they had more options than ever before - although surely not enough. Many schools relinquished their quotas on Jews, although not always without additional pressure to do so. While increased access surely did not end discrimination in all areas of life, it did alter the social climate on and off-campus. It paved the way for our current understanding of the important role access and diversity have in the learning environment and for the heterogeneity and pluralism that we celebrate and defend today.

What we have described as the greatest generation did not earn that distinction simply by their role in a difficult and costly war. They were more than warriors. That generation fundamentally came home from the war and set about to shape American life - economically, culturally, politically, and intellectually. 

Initially, the numbers utilizing the educational benefit were small - about 8,000 in the first year of the program - but by the fall of 1946, as a result of significant demobilization of the military, over a million veterans were enrolled at a college.

During the next ten years, veterans continued to enroll in high numbers, and as a result the number of total college enrollments, including veterans, increased by 75 percent. Unprepared for the massive numbers of veterans enrolling, many colleges and universities rushed to hire faculty and expand facilities. In a number of states, new institutions and consortiums were formed in order to meet the demand.

Among its significant achievements, the original G.I. Bill helped usher in what has often been called the "knowledge society." It was a process that had been underway, but slowly and without a clear vision. Down through the late nineteenth century, American colleges and universities had largely served to transmit received wisdom and classical knowledge. A college degree had limited practical meaning but a college education was a mark of culture. Beginning with the Land Grant College Act, the Morrill Act, of 1862, this changed, and often dramatically. And public institutions began to assert leadership roles in asserting the role of research and creating knowledge as a core purpose of the university. In the nineteenth century, private institutions, including my own, were slower to value curiosity and to encourage faculty and students to challenge received wisdom. Perhaps down through the depression, private education still focused primarily on transmitting knowledge to those who would constitute the cultured class.

By the end of the Second World War in 1945, just as veterans were pouring onto our campuses, government sponsorship of research and interest in public health greatly increased. Regional universities, such as Stanford, grew into major national and international research universities with the aid of federal research dollars. Innovation, creativity, and the abilities to analyze were of paramount importance, not only for faculty work, but also for a student's success in the job market. Work as we knew it changed, and as a result, the four-year degree became an essential tool for individual access - and we became certifiers as well as educators.

Of course, there were other forces influencing the shape of our society at the time the G.I. Bill was expanding the student population - and causing students to have an expanded set of ambitions. The civil rights movement and the women's rights movement, scientific and technological advances, and ever-changing international relationships helped to direct growth in higher education and this country's future. But we cannot underestimate the contributions made by the veterans. Enabled and encouraged by the G.I. Bill, they made this a stronger and more inclusive society.

Some sixty years later, we stand at another critical moment in our history. The worldwide financial crisis has affected every aspect of our lives. I am sure all of us feel the reverberations on our campuses. State and national support for higher education has been declining as a percent of revenue for years. Society depends on our schools for advancements in knowledge, for practical contributions to economic innovation, and for credentialing and enabling our young people - and society supports this essential work less generously. Our private schools may have different revenue sources, but the changing demand and our capacity to meet it have changed. And our society is losing the race to maintain our competitive edge in many arenas.

In his inaugural remarks, President Obama noted: "Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. (W)e must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." His plan for this remaking includes an investment in science, healthcare, technology and a rebuilding of our infrastructure, both physically and intellectually. To do this, the U.S. will need increased numbers of citizens with a post-secondary education.

Unfortunately, today there are many signs that the pipeline for educated workers is broken. Today, only about 67 percent of students graduate from high school, and college completion rates have also declined. Thirty-five years ago the United States ranked second internationally in terms of workers with a college education. Now we are eleventh. In December 2008, the College Board Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, of which I was a member, released its report: "Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future." In it, we asserted that to reclaim our position as a leader in education we must make sure that 55 percent of young Americans complete a two year degree or higher by 2025.

To achieve this, we need to find ways to help the estimated 1.7 million to 3.2 million academically qualified students who will not earn a four-year degree this decade because they cannot meet the financial costs - or even when financial support is available who have never been encouraged to believe they can secure a college education and those who simply do not have the counseling and information needed to make informed decisions about applying and enrolling in a degree program. Fortunately, through the post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (the new G.I. Bill), we have the capacity to bring a significant subset of both populations into our institutions.

I have taken an active interest in the educational needs of our veterans for several years. Having enlisted in the Marines when I was 17, I felt, and still feel, a strong connection with the young women and men serving this country. Most of them are the same age as Dartmouth's undergraduates, and as the Iraq War unfolded my impulse to reach out to them grew.

Since 2005 I have made 17 visits to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, or Walter Reed Army Medical Center, or Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego. During these visits, I met with young men and women whose injuries were serious and, at first, shocking. I talked with them about my own experiences as a veteran and as the first member of my family to go to college, and I found that many were excited about pursuing a college education.

They were also daunted by the prospect of finding information, presenting themselves as applicants, and finding schools where their severe injuries could be accommodated. Unlike other veterans, their disability benefits would likely provide full funding for their attendance at almost any institution, but they needed help to begin their educational journey.

I began working with David Ward, then-president of the American Council on Education, and later, Jim Selbe, director of Program Evaluations at ACE, to develop an educational counseling program for injured veterans who were still in hospitals. ACE launched its Severely Injured Military Veterans Program in early 2007, and it has since helped several hundred students enroll in colleges and universities. I made my most recent visit this morning when I spent a couple of hours out at Walter Reed hospital. I talked to young men about the opportunity provided by education and assured them that they can do anything they want to do.

As I became more involved in issues related to veterans' education, I also came to understand how desperately we needed a new G.I. Bill for all veterans. The Montgomery GI Bill did not provide adequate support for the cost of higher education. A year ago, in February 2008, I spent an afternoon with Senator Jim Webb of Virginia who had introduced legislation for a new GI Bill when he first joined the Senate a year earlier. 

He arranged for us to talk with Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and for a meeting with Senator John Warner of Virginia to discuss a new G.I. Bill. Senator Webb believed that Senator Warner, as a senior Republican and former Secretary of the Navy was critical to passage of the legislation. The three of us, old Marines all, talked at length about congressional concerns regarding the costs of a new G.I. Bill that would cover tuition, fees, and other expenses, given the variances in charges between institutions. The Grassley effect complicated any plan that might provide more federal support for private institutions that appeared to be comfortably wealthy and still charged very high tuition.

As a result of this attitude, there was significant congressional sentiment to cap GI Bill support at the level of the highest public tuition charged in the veteran's home state. In fact the February 2008 draft language for the legislation would include such a limit. We felt it important to put in place some measure that would provide sufficient funding to enable veterans to consider private colleges and universities as well as out of state charges at public institutions. We wanted to give them as many options as possible, just as the 1944 G.I. Bill and the Vietnam era bill did for those veterans. Senator Warner had used the GI Bill to attend Washington and Lee and Senator Webb, a Naval Academy graduate, used the GI Bill to attend Georgetown Law School. 

They amended the original bill to include language that we had developed in which institutions that charged more than the cost of the highest public tuition in the state could share equally with the government in covering the difference, the "delta" as Senator Warner called it. 

The Higher Education community, led by NAICU and ACE, worked with veterans' groups and many other individuals and organizations to secure passage of the legislation. There was significant resistance from the administration at first. But in June of 2008 President Bush signed the new legislation, including what was called the Yellow Ribbon section whereby institutions with tuition rates higher than the state cap can look to share some or all of the incremental cost with the VA. Beginning this next August, most continuing students who are veterans will seek to transition their benefits from the Montgomery G.I. Bill to the post 9/11 Bill and others will take advantage of their educational benefits for the first time through the new G.I. Bill. There could be a twenty to twenty-five percent increase in the number of enrolled veterans - currently there are 350,000 enrolled under existing VA programs - and this could be greater, and almost surely will be in the future.

The Bill covers the cost of any public institution's undergraduate program and provides a monthly housing allowance and book stipend for all veterans. However, the institutions most of us in this room represent charge undergraduate and graduate tuition rates higher than the tuition benefit cap, leaving a balance for veterans to pay or for colleges to cover through institutional aid in partnership with the VA. As college and university endowments continue to suffer during the current financial crisis, the number of schools that are comfortable signing onto the Yellow Ribbon program may be decreasing. None of us are comfortable with incremental expenses at a time when we need to cut costs substantially. If many of us do not participate this places a greater burden on veterans who wish to attend more expensive schools, a burden that most of them cannot meet. Let me urge you all to join in this program.

The Yellow Ribbon Program provides more flexibility for institutional participants than is immediately obvious. Signing onto this does not obligate your school to contribute the maximum amount, half of the difference, to all veterans who enroll. It provides a dollar for dollar match of up to 50 percent of the difference between the highest undergraduate tuition at a public institution in its own state and its own tuition.

Your campus can choose at what level you will participate - what percentage of the cost difference you will cover and you may choose the number of veterans you will enroll under this program. Colleges must enroll annually and can change their level of participation and the number of veterans accommodated.

For those institutions that are concerned about participating in the full 50 percent match, I would urge you to run the numbers with care. There is in this program the possibility of federal support for up to 75% of the tuition cost of the veteran - your obligation would be the remainder. And these students would bring support for additional expenses with them. I would urge you to join in the program and to limit the numbers if you are apprehensive rather than limiting the amount of support for each student. The latter puts the burden on the student. Your participation underscores support for veterans and affirms that they are welcome on your campus.

As I have learned over the last several years, it is not enough to sit back passively and expect veterans to come to us. It is my observation after several years of talking to veterans - largely wounded veterans, to be sure, but I think they are pretty representative in this regard - that the financial barrier is only part of what is keeping them from thinking about higher education. They have in some cases never been encouraged to think about this and they have often come to believe they would not be welcome. We need to step up to remedy this. This requires us to remember that these are not conventional students being encouraged and supported by high school guidance counselors, teachers, and parents. They need encouragement. They need information. They need help in applying. And they need us to be flexible.

I do think we have an opportunity to think carefully about how our practices and policies either deter or encourage veterans to join us on our campuses. We have done no less for other underrepresented groups as we have sought to fulfill our educational missions, and I believe it will take less work than some fear to make a similar effort for veterans: Posting information in a central location on your website; identification of a coordinator or contact person who can address specific needs of veterans; development of workshops to help students, faculty, and staff understand the experiences of veterans; accommodating the needs of these particular students; and possible partnerships with your closest VA hospital or other veterans' organization. These are all manageable steps we can take toward creating an inclusive environment for veterans - as is enrolling in the Yellow Ribbon Program.

I understand that each of your schools will have to come to its own decision about participation and that for those of you with graduate programs or differing tuition levels, there may be different levels of participation. Last week I read some of the public comments posted in January about the proposed regulations, and I know that there remain unanswered questions related to the administrative work they will require, both for the Department of Veterans Affairs and for institutions. Among other questions, there are concerns about what "fees" will be covered, about how "need-based" financial aid can relate to this program, about the current requirement that schools "waive" tuition rather than use scholarship programs, and about the ways in which multiple schools within a single institution can have different plans.

These are all important issues to consider, and over the next several months these will have to be addressed. Even then, it is likely that there will still be concerns to be worked out over the first year of the program. Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Keith Wilson who is the director of education benefits at the Veterans Administration and is responsible for developing the regulations for administration of the new program. He will join us tomorrow for a session on the Yellow Ribbon program. I am impressed by his commitment to find a way to make this work - for the veterans and for the schools. 

All of our schools are privileged, to be sure some more than others, but we are all enabled by government grants and protection and by the tax-advantaged support of individuals. With privilege goes obligation - and we do here have an obligation to recognize those who have stepped forward and have served the country. But there is more than that - beyond privilege and obligation, we all surely do feel a commitment to make our school the better and the experience of our students the stronger. 

That need introduces one additional reason for participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program that I have not yet addressed, and it is perhaps the most compelling of all - the students themselves. At Dartmouth we have several Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have joined us in the last two years - they now number nine. Probably six of them have purple hearts and three or four had major injuries. I counseled a few of them before they applied and one of them I first met when he was in a hospital bed suffering from gunshot wounds suffered in a firefight in the battle of Fallujah. These students are exceptionally bright and engaging young people.

If they stand apart from their peers in any way it is to their credit: their GPAs are at or above the average. Several have already earned honors. Their professors report they rarely miss class and are diligent and timely in the completion of all work. They have tended to take many history and government classes and are particularly interested in international affairs and languages. They are active in all aspects of campus life, and last year they formed their own student veterans association. Other students have enjoyed having them as classmates. They are a wonderful addition to our classroom discussions and to the campus environment.

We expect several more veterans will matriculate at Dartmouth next fall. These students have and will continue to enrich our campus, as did the veterans who came to Hanover before them - dating back to the fall of 1945.

There are many compelling reasons for us to proactively support access to higher education for our country's veterans. I would argue it is the right thing to do for them, an important thing for us to do for our nation and the wise thing to do for our institutions. This is a wonderful opportunity, a trifecta you should not let pass you by!





Last Updated: 6/25/09