The Military Appeal: MBA Programs Love Veterans, And The Feeling Is Mutual

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Military veterans always have been attractive candidates at the leading business schools. AT UNC Kenan-Flagler, they comprise 5% of the MBA Class of 2022. thebalancecareers.com

Jack DeBell was looking for more than an MBA program. He was looking for a home.

After a three-year stint in the Army, DeBell was a civilian again, working for a Virginia-based defense contractor. He knew an MBA would supercharge his career — but it had to be the right fit. And it had to be the right location for him and his fiancée.

A native of the Washington, D.C. area, DeBell applied to six major U.S. MBA programs up and down the East Coast. Some waitlisted him. Some made offers. One did both — Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. And it was there that he found the fit he was looking for, as a veteran and as someone with a long career ahead.

“I was looking for three things for a full-time MBA program,” says DeBell, who graduated this spring with the Class of 2020. “Obviously, opportunity afterwards. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re there. That’s what we were chasing after. And for me, the employment opportunities that I had seen, the alumni I had gotten to speak to, I was excited about the employment opportunities that happened afterwards at UNC.

“The second is, I felt like the students that I was talking to during the recruiting process were going to be indicative of the alumni network I would tap into, and of what UNC was looking for in a student if they were recruiting, as well. And so I meshed well with the students that I spoke to during my recruitment process. A big part of that was the veterans association there. It was phenomenal — I slipped right in. I mean, I probably went back two or three times just to see folks and get a better feel for the school and everything. But I felt like that would be indicative of the class that I would come in with.

“And then third was, I knew that my fiancée would eventually move down to Chapel Hill as well. And so I was looking for a home. This wasn’t just a blip on my radar. I wanted somewhere that felt like a home and a community for two years. And UNC absolutely met every single aspect of that. We had a phenomenal time in Chapel Hill. It was super fun.”

B-SCHOOLS HAVE ALWAYS LOVED VETERANS & THAT ISN’T ABOUT TO CHANGE

Jack DeBell. Courtesy photo

Across graduate business education in the U.S., military veterans have always been appealing candidates. In the top 25 programs, former members of the military generally make up 5% to 10% of any given cohort. And B-schools are eager to attract more. Scholarships and fellowships are plentiful, and veterans clubs and associations given prominence and support.

Why? Because veterans bring unique work experience and outlook that is different from nonmilitary MBA candidates. Often they have performed difficult tasks under immense pressure, and developed skill sets that allow them to thrive in high-stress environments. Admissions teams know that admitting candidates with military experience enhances the diversity of any MBA class.

At Harvard Business School, application fees are waived for veterans, and each admitted MBA candidate is offered $20,000, which is matched by the Veterans Administration for a total of $40,000. This year, to celebrate Veteran Day, HBS is staging a week of programming titled “Discover the Military Community at HBS,” featuring fireside chats with professors and alumni, an Armed Forces Alumni Association leadership panel, and more.

In addition to having well-established and energetically helpful veterans clubs, application fees are waived for veterans and grant monies offered at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, at Stanford Graduate School of Business, at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, at MIT Sloan School of Management — and at just about any other B-school in the Poets&Quants top 50. And there are other services and programs, not affiliated with a school, that help veterans, whether they are planing to go directly from service to school or they have spent time in the workforce since discharge. The most well-known is Service to School, which boasts that it can help service members achieve “Admission Accomplished!”

The veterans association at Kenan-Flagler was a big reason that Jack DeBell applied and enrolled at UNC. The 40- to 50-strong group allowed him to arrive on campus with a strong network already in place. In his first year, DeBell became so involved with it that he was elected president for his second year.

“In the veteran network, we’re very fortunate to have this common bond already coming in,” DeBell tells P&Q. “I would argue most students don’t come in with a shared experience to that same level. Every school I went to, I immediately connected with the veterans associations at those schools. And just based on my interaction with the veterans association in my recruiting process at UNC, I knew that was what I wanted to be involved with, and eventually put in my kind of ticket to run — which I eventually was fortunate enough to be elected president for my second year.”

UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Class Year

% Military

Number

Class Size

Class of 2019

5%

15

290

Class of 2020

6%

16

276

Class of 2021

8%

20

252

Class of 2022

5%

16

344

VETERAN TALENT ‘HIGHLY SOUGHT AFTER’ IN BUSINESS WORLD

At UNC, like other prominent U.S. MBA programs, veterans who earn their MBAs overwhelmingly go on to great career success, says Tammy Samuels, executive director of career and leadership for MBA programs at the Kenan-Flagler School.

“Our veterans see high success rates as they transition out of the military or advance in their civilian careers,” Samuels says. “Many operations and strategy roles are a natural fit for veterans, but beyond that we see many land in corporate finance, leadership and consulting roles as well. Their outcomes span a broad range of industries and functions, as their experience in the military makes them highly versatile candidates. Veterans are well-qualified because of their leadership, management, strategy and operations skills along with their ability to make decisions in extraordinary situations while remaining composed, organized and resourceful.

“When you combine these top desired attributes with the military organizational structure of exposing their members to a variety of positions every few years, the demand for these students is unquestionable. Veteran talent is highly sought after with many companies developing special military recruiting programs across the country.”

All applicants to the full-time MBA at UNC are considered for merit-based fellowships through the admission process, Samuels says, and for those who are eligible for Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to cover their tuition and fees — those like Jack DeBell — fellowship funds have been set aside to assist in covering indirect expenses like room, board, etc. After students enroll, she adds, the school also offers limited fellowship funding to assist in covering costs associated with attending the annual Veterans Conference and, if funding is available, to offset additional course fees associated with enrollment in electives such as Washington Campus, Doing Business In (DBI), MBA Exchange, and Global Immersion Elective (GIE).

Chicago Booth photo

The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago had one of the highest proportions of military MBAs in this year’s incoming Class of 2022: 8%. It was the highest in school history in the biggest class in school history: 621. That prompted Donna Swinford, Booth’s associate dean for student recruitment and admissions in MBA programs, to suggest that the school make its military population more prominent in this year’s class profile.

“We have more U.S. veterans in our class than we’ve ever had, so when we started looking at our numbers, we decided, ‘Well, why aren’t we publishing this?’ Because it’s actually, I think, a good data point for people to know,” Swinford says. “So we included it this year.”

Eight percent may be a school record, but the Booth School is no stranger to military MBAs, Swinford tells P&Q.

“Every year, we look to shape a diverse class in terms of academic backgrounds, regions, ethnicity, and industry,” she says. “We often find military candidates are grounded in ways that reflect Booth values — bold, resilient, collaborative, selfless, determined, hardworking, leaders by example. Their contributions to the classroom and community are part of what make Booth such an intellectually distinctive place to learn.

“We are seeing an increase in military applicants. My sense of the trend is that a positive feedback loop is being established by the alumni of great MBA programs. As service members hear about the success of their former peers, they develop the confidence to embark on the path to earn an MBA knowing that success is achievable. I’d also say that I think this trend will continue to grow in the coming years. So many military folks either aren’t aware of the opportunities or haven’t historically viewed it as a viable path.”

WHY AN MBA MAKES SENSE FOR VETERANS

Chris Payne. Courtesy photo

Chris Payne, an MBA student in the Booth Class of 2021, was an Army Special Forces officer who spent about a decade in the service. From combat patrols in Afghanistan to deployments in Central and South America, he’s seen it all. When he began thinking of leaving the Army a couple of years go, it was a logical next step to get an MBA.

“In the military, you typically train before you go do the job,” Payne tells P&Q. “It never fully prepares you, but you at least get some of the core competencies down, the skill set, and you’re with your peers in a peer learning environment. And we’re used to that. And so when you’re transitioning from something you know, a domain you understand in the military, to one you don’t in the private sector, that ability to train again and learn from your peers in a peer learning environment is a great way to build towards your next career. And so that’s why an MBA in general makes sense.”

Why Booth? Flexible curriculum, a robust veterans group, and strong financial support were a potent mix, he says.

“Most veterans have somewhere between five and 10 years of service when they come to business school,” Payne says. “And so we want to build a toolkit. Additionally, we haven’t been in an environment where we’re learning the same skills or have the same knowledge and abilities that you’ll see among many of our peers and classmates. And Booth really has this flexible curriculum. You’re able to take whatever you want. If you want to double down on your strengths — cool, you can do that. If you want to really attack your weaknesses, you can do that, too. If you’re super interested in following one path, whether it’s entrepreneurship, finance, or whatever, you can just really curate the curriculum you want. And when you are used to putting together training plans and training big groups of people, putting together a training plan for yourself and building a toolkit that you want coming out of an MBA program is really, really appealing.

“Just one more thing. Simply put, Booth is incredible when it comes to financial support for veterans. And I’ve talked to pretty much all the veterans that apply to Booth, and that’s been a lot this year. So many are surprised to find out that if you have the full 9/11 GI Bill benefit, that Booth is essentially free. And there is incredible financial support for people who don’t have full 9/11 GI Bill, as well. So just simply put, I don’t know if there’s anywhere that can match it, but Booth’s support is just absolutely incredible on that front.”

MANY LEVELS OF FINANCIAL SUPPORT

Donna Swinford. Courtesy photo

About that financial support: Chicago Booth is like most leading B-schools in that it participates in federal and other programs that help former service members. “We are proud to continue offering a substantial portfolio of scholarships and financial assistance to Armed Forces members pursuing their MBA,” Swinford says. “In 2016, alumnus Eric Gleacher, ’67, gave $10 million to fund the Gleacher Veterans Scholars Fund, which helps bridge the gap between government benefits and the remaining costs of getting a degree from Chicago Booth. The following year, we increased our Yellow Ribbon match amount to ensure 100% of tuition and fees would be covered for all eligible students in the Full-Time MBA, Evening MBA, and Weekend MBA Programs. Last year, on Veteran’s Day, it was announced the Harper Family Foundation gifted an additional $10 million to double the support available to veterans at Booth.” The school has several other awards that give preference to military candidates, including the David W. Fox Scholarship, the Stephen J. & Jennifer L. Czech-U.S. Navy SEAL Scholarship, and the Dennis W. and Jane B. Carlton Fellowship for those who served in the Israeli military.

Those with military experience are supported in other ways at Booth, she continues: The University of Chicago’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities provides overarching programming and community for veterans, while Booth’s Armed Forces Group offers help early in a candidate’s MBA journey with interview preparation, resume workshops, career coaching, and family social activities. “As a sign of our continued commitment to recruiting individuals with military experience, we also offer an application fee waiver to all veterans and active military applicants,” Swinford adds.

“We’ve participated in the Yellow Ribbon program almost since it began in 2008,” she continues. “Back then it was $15,000 or $12,000 a year and we only had seven. And we’ve evolved over time, when we just started realizing the impact of this award and what we can do. Three years ago, we decided to raise the Yellow Ribbon amount to be $30,000 matching per year, guaranteeing that anyone who’s in our full-time or Evening or Weekend program, that they would not have to worry about tuition. And if you come to Chicago, you not only have the GI Bill and you have the Yellow Ribbon match, but you also have housing, you have books. So there’s a lot of financial resources available for those who are 100% eligible for GI Bill.”

SUCCESS STORIES

Like their nonmilitary peers, a majority of veterans at Booth pursue investment banking or management consulting paths — paths that seem almost tailor-made for veterans. Both allow them to leverage their leadership and ability to communicate “while learning about multiple industries and generating optionality long-term,” Swinford says. “We’ve seen incredible success in these two, respectively, with 100% employment rates for veterans who pursued internships in IB and consulting for the Class of 2021.”

Beyond IB and consulting, she says, many veterans pursue paths in corporate roles, tech, startups, venture capital, and private equity. “Overall, every veteran at Booth has the flexibility to chart their own path and the support system from our Group and Booth’s resources to achieve their goals.”

For Chris Payne, the world of consulting awaits. After interning this summer with Boston Consulting’s Group’s Dallas office (remotely from Chicago), he will return to the consulting giant full-time after graduation.

“I think pretty much everyone applies to MBA programs for the same six reasons: brand association, the pursuit of knowledge, the acquisition of skills, access to incredible jobs, developing an outstanding professional network, making lifelong friends, and having fun. For me, and I think most veterans, the pursuit of knowledge and skills along with access to incredible jobs were most important,” Payne says. “I knew what I wanted to learn from my MBA and had a sense of where I wanted to take my career. Though those two weighed heavily, I wanted to maximize all six when choosing my program. Luckily, I’ve been able to do that at Booth — and I was able to find an internship that allowed me to contribute greatly and really feel great about the experience in spite of missing out on some of the traditional things you get to do and get-togethers you get to have with your intern class when you’re in-person. And I’m going back full-time.”

UNC photo

Betsy Massar, founder of MBA consultancy Master Admissions, has worked for years with veterans as they navigate their post-service careers and look to business school to find direction or add skills. She recently asked veterans fo both the Army and Air Force, both of whom are in the application process, about their experiences dealing with B-schools. Both told her that they had a sense that B-schools are now more welcoming that ever to those with a military background.

The reasons are obvious, Massar says.

“Admissions love the leadership element and they love the fact that military types have very diverse experiences from that of your normal banker or consultant,” she says. “I’m not seeing as many with front-line experience. I had people who were in combat a few years back, but not so much anymore, as there are fewer troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s getting easier for veterans to get into top programs, she adds.

“One candidate told me that competition as a military applicant has gotten a lot fiercer, and anecdotally, I think it is has become harder for the military candidate with terrific leadership but so-so grades or scores. Indeed, they are competing against each other,” Massar says. “I also think that military members who have mastered languages or other skills that make them more employable are always going to be in demand.”

‘NEARLY EVERY VET I’VE TALKED TO HAS GOTTEN ADMITTED TO A PROGRAM WHERE THEY SEEM HAPPY’

One veteran explained the lay of the land to Massar, which she conveyed to P&Q:

“The fact is that some military jobs provide a unique opportunity to test and grow leadership skills that ‘normal’ jobs just don’t offer fresh out of college,” he says. “Not every military job is created equal however, but if a veteran knows to sell themselves I can see it being very challenging for an adcom to admit the best military candidates, so I do think there is a bit of a black box when it comes to military guys and gals. We never really know who is going to get admitted.”

The veteran says the bigger welcome mat for veterans may be a case of schools trying to achieve greater diversity. But competition has become fiercer.

“I think overall, B-schools are becoming more welcoming to military applicants; whether this is a case of a school trying to hit diversity marks or previous veterans have been good additions to the class, I’m sure the right answer is somewhere in the middle. Nearly every veteran I’ve talked to has gotten admitted to a program where they seem happy. I think the competition amongst veteran top-MBA hopefuls has increased dramatically in the past few years and would be interested to see if there has been a rising number of military applicants year over year. The advice of ‘Apply anyway even though you don’t have a 700+ GMAT’ seems like wishful thinking these days and I don’t consider a veteran competitive unless they have cracked 700, that’s always my first question when younger guys in the military ask me for guidance on the admissions process: focus on the hard numbers you can control first.”

Another veteran says:

“It’s an interesting question and similar to one I posed to my Haas interviewer (‘02 grad and recently retired senior coast guard officer). During his time there, military students comprised six to nine of the 250 class size. These days, it’s around 30-40 of 290. Definitely an upward trend over time.

“However, if the question is how much disproportional weight do schools give military applicants and whether there is an upward trend in the past 3-5 years, I don’t have any concrete data. Anecdotally, every veterans club member or recent graduate always says, ‘Yeah, they love military on campus’ or, ‘veterans are always strong candidates.’ It’s hard to discern details about veterans admissions from these platitudes.”

‘AN MBA IS A PHENOMENAL WAY TO’ FOR VETERANS GET INTO BUSINESS

Business schools have always found military veterans to be attractive candidates. But it works both ways. B-school has always been appealing to veterans, who find their skill set well-suited to the rigorous leadership challenges of MBA programs.

Jack DeBell, UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Class of 2020, thrived during his MBA and used it as a springboard to a new career. After interning with waste management corporation Republic Services in 2019, he accepted a role in their General Manager Acceleration Program after graduation, and will spend much of the next two years in the program in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I was looking to make a pivot,” DeBell says. “An MBA opened the doors to industries and roles that I never would have had access to in my past. It provided me with a fantastic place to build a foundation of business skills and figure out how to combine that foundation with my military experience and leadership.”

“For veterans looking to get into business, an MBA is such a phenomenal, phenomenal way to do it. If you can do it as a full-time program, the recruitment opportunities are incredible, and it really outfits you with a toolkit that complements our experience from the military very, very well.

“Community, a new home, and opportunity — in looking for an MBA program, there were three elements I was looking to find. I wanted a community that was one I would want to be a part of forever and that would provide me with friends/connections that would last a lifetime. In a similar sense, I was looking for a new place to call home for the next two years. It was important for me to be excited about life outside of the classroom and be in a place that was going to provide an excellent all-around experience.

“UNC was going to provide me with the stepping stones to my future. It was most important to me to find a place that offered the best opportunity upon graduation and the best option for my future employment. UNC met my criteria and so much more.”

Poets&Quants has written about military veterans for many years. We’ve interviewed countless veterans and featured their own writing about their application, admission, and MBA and post-MBA experiences almost since our founding 10 years ago. See some our stories here:

10 MILITARY VETERANS TO WATCH FROM THE CLASS OF 2020 

MBA FIELD NOTES: MILITARY TO MBA 

TIPS FOR MILITARY APPLICANTS TO MBA PROGRAMS 

SHEDDING THE VETERAN STEREOTYPE AND THRIVING IN B-SCHOOL 

AN ARMY MAJOR REFLECTS ON HER WHARTON JOURNEY 

SPEAKING OF STERN: THE MILITARY VETERANS AMONG US 

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