Editor’s note: The following is an opinion piece. The writers are not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.

A question: “How many active and former service members are there in the United States today?” What’s your best guess? It may surprise that for an accurate answer, you won’t be able to turn to the Veterans Administration (VA), the US Department of Defense, nor the Department of Education or the Census Bureau — these agencies can’t reliably or consistently answer this question either.

Likewise, despite the well-established role of the GI Bill in transitioning veterans to civilian life, we do not know how many veterans take advantage of this hard-earned benefit. Nor do we have a good handle on how well veterans do in school, which degree programs they choose, or whether they achieve success in post-service careers.

“Big data” — the tracking of our lives and habits — might be one of the buzzwords of the moment, but when it comes to keeping demographic track of service members and veterans, big data is still in its infancy.

Why should we care about such data?

Because without it, it is nearly impossible for Americans to ensure that veterans are getting a good return on taxpayers’ $14 billion-a-year investment in their education and whether they are successful transitioning out of service.

Furthermore, despite our own research and some important new efforts by the Student Veterans of America, lack of information can easily become a lack of concern for an important generation of Gulf War and Post-9/11 veterans.

Making matters worse, colleges and universities are not asked whether they actually help veterans get the most out of the GI Bill on campus and beyond. For instance, the Obama administration’s 2012 executive order (establishing “Principles of Excellence” for schools) had no reporting metrics, and even though more 250 campuses registered for the “8 Keys to Veterans Success” (a 2013 Department of Education and VA initiative), this program also included no follow-up assessment or metrics. Some schools are exceptions, like Syracuse University, Columbia University, and perhaps new efforts at Wesleyan.

What we do know is that half of all veterans choose not to use their hard-earned GI Bill benefits, and that many veterans who do go to university face cultural and bureaucratic barriers, even discrimination. Yet our research also indicates that, given service members’ training and professionalization, many veterans are “pre-qualified” for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, among other professions. However — again with some exceptions — few pipelines exist inside the academy to match veterans’ skillsets to degrees and jobs.

Distressingly, elite universities that should be leading the way for others are falling down on the job. Most Americans don’t realize how few veterans are enrolled at top colleges. GI Bill recipients comprise nearly 5 percent of the national collegiate student population, yet less than 1 percent of top 20 universities. Moreover, Inside HigherEd’s Wick Sloane notes that among the Ivy League, only Columbia University stands out, with 375 student veterans in 2016. Other Ivies enrolled just 62 service members total in 2016, with just one veteran at Princeton and three at Harvard.

Yet we know that universities can rally quickly to serve populations they deem “underserved.” Nearly 50 campuses, including the entire Ivy League, signed a letter opposing President Trump’s Jan. 27, 2017, immigration order, which academic leaders claim undermines support for vulnerable foreign, immigrant, and undocumented students. Although most universities advocate for “diversity,” this concept rarely includes student veterans, despite the fact that the military is the most demographically diverse institution in American life.

So why is there not a greater push to help student veterans seeking educational support? How long will veterans on and off campus remain demographically “invisible,” thanks to federal data research priorities, or underserved in higher education, thanks to lack of oversight and a narrow understanding of “diversity”?

To address these concerns, we recommend that the Trump administration make veterans a national “strategic priority” in higher education and, concomitantly, in federal statistical agencies’ data collection and reporting efforts. This initiative would entail the following:

  1. The Trump administration should create a “President’s Commission on “Veterans Benefits in the United States,” similar to the post-World War II Executive Order 10588 (1955). Congress also should convene a bipartisan, bicameral review — similar to after-action reviews of earlier conflicts — of federal and academic data on recent cohorts of service members, requesting testimony from academics and nonprofits serving veterans, such as Student Veterans of America; Institute for Veterans & Military Families; Warrior Scholar Project; The Posse Foundation and Service to School.
  2. Congress should mandate that each of the 13 federal statistical agencies increase their data-collection for veterans, including GI Bill benefit use and outcomes. With such data readily available, the government could ensure that higher education institutions are genuine partners in supporting veterans’ post-service success through federally-funded programs.
  3. Every university receiving federal military and veterans’ benefits should be required to report student outcome data to the US Department of Education. Colleges and universities also should be required to take military status into account when reporting “diversity” on campus.

It is time to strengthen our understanding of Post-9/11 veterans and to underscore what veterans already know: that higher education is often pivotal to their successful transition. Judging from public confidence and support for military servicemembers, we believe the public agrees.

Corri Zoli (Corri Zoli)
Corri Zoli (Corri Zoli)

Corri Zoli is director of research at Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT).

Daniel Fay (Daniel Fay)
Daniel Fay (Daniel Fay)

Daniel Fay is an assistant professor at Florida State University.

Sidney Ellington (Sidney Ellington)
Sidney Ellington (Sidney Ellington)

Sidney Ellington is executive director of the Warrior-Scholar Project.

David Segal (David Segal)
David Segal (David Segal)

David Segal is director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organization.