When the United States shifted to an all-volunteer military, however, military service ceased to be one of those obligations. A very unpopular draft during the Vietnam War, along with a period of relative peace, helped make military service more an employment or economic decision than an obligation to serve in combat.
That has changed over the last decade. The United States has been involved in two wars that have resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 American service men and women while wounding more than 45,000. These burdens have been borne disproportionately by young men and women from low-income families, many of whom enlisted at least partly for economic reasons.
The veterans now returning home have helped make it possible for many young people - predominantly those from more affluent families - to go from high school directly to college without worrying about being drafted for military service. That there has been so little objection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on college campuses, in contrast to the Vietnam War, is at least partly due to our reliance on a "voluntary" military.
For a variety of reasons, including that the military leadership much prefers the current arrangement, it seems unlikely that we will move away from a volunteer military anytime soon. So the least we can do is open our doors to the returning veterans who have enabled the elimination of the draft and military service for most Americans.
Many selective private colleges and universities have expressed their interest in recruiting veterans by signing up with the Yellow Ribbon Program, which supplements the educational benefits veterans earn through the post-9/11 GI Bill. But enrolling these veterans is proving more difficult than we anticipated, perhaps because most veterans don't think of our institutions as an obvious choice for them, especially given our preponderance of nonprofessional, liberal-arts undergraduate programs and 18- to 23-year-old students.
However, our institutions devote more resources to each of our students than most, and we have some of the highest rates of graduation and success in sending students on to graduate work. Also, a good liberal-arts education can prepare students, including veterans, for the challenges they're likely to face in the coming decades. The skills nurtured by a liberal-arts education - including critical thinking, written and verbal communication, and teamwork - are precisely those that are valued in modern workplaces.
With more than two million veterans currently eligible for GI Bill tuition benefits, and even more expected to be added to this number over the coming years, there must be plenty of veterans for whom our institutions would indeed be a good option.
While it's difficult for our admissions offices to find appropriate applicants among this group of men and women we have not traditionally recruited, we can take lessons from our efforts to recruit racially and socioeconomically diverse students over the last several decades. If we commit to working together to identify a pool of veteran candidates and place them in the most appropriate schools, perhaps we can do our part to pay our debt to the young men and women who have borne the burden of the United States' wars.
Catharine Hill is the president of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.