This The New York Times article on special admissions programs for military veterans at elite colleges provides a good excuse for a four day review of the topic, one we have covered before at EphBlog. This is Day 4.

Carl Callender, a member of the first veteran cohort at Vassar, was working full time and attending classes at Bronx Community College when he learned about Vassar’s initiative.

“My plan was, at the time, to get my associate’s degree and then transfer to Hunter or Baruch,” he said, referring to two campuses of the City University of New York. “I was at a point where I felt that certain opportunities were no longer available to me. But then along came Posse.”

That sounds like a pretty smart plan! Is going to Vassar a much better idea? I have my doubts.

First, although there are real benefits to attending an elite school, it is not clear (to me) how many of those benefits apply to a 35 year-old like Callendar. In particular, what “certain opportunities” is he referring to? The most obvious opportunities (outside of the high quality of the education itself) that Vassar provides are:

a) Providing a network of peers and friends and potential spouses.
b) Providing an on-ramp to certain high powered careers that are largely unavailable to someone at a less elite school.

It is not clear, to say the least, that this applies to someone who is 35 at Vassar. How much can he (reasonably) hang out and befriend the teen-agers in his class? How much will recruiters like, say, Morgan Stanley or Teach for America, view him as they view other Vassar students.

Mr. Callender, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve for eight years, said that the transition to campus life was hard, but greatly eased by the presence of a group of veterans.

“I stuck out like a sore thumb,” Mr. Callender, 35, said of his first day on campus. But his fellow veterans provided social support. “I had people I knew, people I could eat with and people I could study with.”

If I were Callendar, I would do the same: study with, eat with, live with and hang out with the people I had the most in common with. But that pattern, reasonable as it is, means that other Vassar students don’t actually benefit from the presence of this “diversity.”

Even so, returning to school had been a somewhat disorienting, if positive, experience.

“It’s awkward coming here,” he said of Vassar, where he is a sophomore. “It’s almost like someone hit the reset button. Five years ago I would have been able to tell you exactly what I wanted to do. But now, I am like a kid in a candy store.”

Kids in candy stores are not famous for making smart long-term choices. So, perhaps this simile is all too accurate. We need to know more details about Callendar’s situation, but it sure sounds like he was a Marine with a plan. Working full time at age 35 is a very good idea, especially if it is giving you experience and connections in an industry that you want to be in. Taking college classes part time is smart (and cheap).

Dropping all that and going to Vassar for four years is a very different plan. Maybe it is a better one. Maybe it isn’t. But am I the only one that doesn’t completely trust Vassar to present the pros and cons of the decision accurately to Callendar?

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