The similarities between the helicopters that left Saigon and the scenes last month at the Kabul airport are painful. For whatever reasons, we have not learned to retreat safely for our citizens and allies. We have failed in our obligations and commitments to those Afghans who most importantly assisted and protected our young men and women who we sent in harm’s way. 

There is another lesson from Vietnam that I hope we have learned, even if we failed the lesson on leaving. We did not adequately support our Vietnam veterans when they returned to civilian life. 

Today, as we wind down two decades of war and as more of our service men and women return to civilian life, we need to do better than we did by our Vietnam veterans. There are a variety of ways to help, including offering effective transition services by the military and supporting other organizations that supply needed assistance, from housing to mental health services, for our veterans.

One particularly important issue for many veterans today is access to post-secondary higher education. Over the last 50 years, post-secondary education has become increasingly important for success in the labor market, at the same time that it has become increasingly expensive. While a high school degree could lead to a middle-class income and life at the start of the second half of the 20th century because of good jobs in manufacturing and other sectors of the economy that didn’t require a BA, this is no longer the case in the 21st century. A college education increases lifetime earnings (by about 60 percent compared to a high school graduate), contributes to better health outcomes, and leads to more interesting and satisfying careers. At the same time, with a voluntary military and no draft, many enlisted men and women do not have a college education. Many veterans come from families where they will be the first generation in their families to attend college, and they were not prepared to do so right after high school for financial and other reasons. In many cases, part of their motivation for enlisting was to gain access to the financial benefits offered by military service to support their further education.  

The Post 9/11 GI Bill offers these benefits. It covers full in-state tuition and fees at any public college or university for up to 36 months, or up to about $25,000 annually to attend a private institution. Additional financial support is available for higher tuition private institutions through the Yellow Ribbon program. There is also federal support for housing, books and supplies, and work-study jobs.  

Despite these benefits, most veterans are not enrolling in the colleges and universities from which they are most likely to graduate, and it is important to recognize that the benefits from post-secondary education come with earning a degree. Currently, about 65 percent of veterans using the GI Bill enroll in institutions with six-year graduation rates below 50 percent. And, only 10 percent of these veterans enroll in “high-graduation rate” institutions, with six-year graduation rates above 70 percent.  

The explanations for this are varied and are the result of both decisions by veterans and by colleges and universities. These higher graduation rate institutions include public flagships, the Ivies, and selective liberal arts colleges and other private non-profit colleges and universities. Veterans don’t always see themselves as good matches for these schools, despite many being more than qualified to attend. They do not always understand the benefits of attending these institutions rather than others that may be both more convenient and less expensive. And, these higher graduation rate schools do not routinely recruit students who don’t fit their usual 18 year-old demographic, in contrast to many for-profit and other institutions which recruit heavily. There are other impediments to progress. Veterans often have accumulated credits that they want to transfer, and the higher graduation rate schools are often resistant to transfer credit. But, the GI Bill would be more likely to accomplish its goals of improving postsecondary outcomes for veterans if more veterans enrolled in these higher graduation rate colleges and universities.

To make this happen, active military men and women need to be better informed about their educational options on leaving the military. As important, these higher graduation rate colleges and universities must open their doors to a greater number of veterans, and actively recruit them. The excuse that there are no veterans in their applicant pools is not an adequate excuse. When colleges and universities make it clear that veterans are welcome, veterans apply and matriculate. The current success of programs like Service to School and the Posse Veterans Program, which work to place veterans at higher graduation rate schools, and the enrollment numbers at Columbia and Syracuse Universities, and more recently in the first-year class at Harvard, make this clear. Forty-three colleges and university members of the American Talent Initiative are committed to expanding their student veteran enrollment. These higher graduation rate colleges and universities would benefit from the financial support of the GI Bill as well as from enhanced campus diversity that veterans bring to campus. After 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we owe the women and men who served our nation the opportunity for a productive and satisfying civilian life. In the United States at the start of the 21st century, the chances of this are much better with a college degree. We have committed the resources through the GI Bill. Now, we need to work a bit harder to make sure these resources lead to more college degrees and greater opportunities for our veterans. As a nation, we did not serve our Vietnam veterans well. We have the opportunity to do better by the veterans of our more recent wars after 9/11, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.