As a U.S. Army captain retiring after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tom Pae feared he might have a hard time getting into a prestigious MBA program. When he started applying last year, though, the West Point graduate quickly discovered he had a coveted résumé as recruiters from top institutions encouraged him to consider their programs. In October he was accepted to Columbia Business School in New York, his “reach” school, and he expects to enroll there this fall. “There is a confidence issue when you’re in the military and applying to business school,” Pae says. “You figure you are up against a bunch of consultants and bankers and wonder, ‘How does my experience translate?’ ”
Pretty well, it turns out: Leading B-schools such as Wharton, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley have stepped up their recruiting of service members. The schools say veterans have a unique outlook on leadership and will help them diversify their student bodies. Vets “are people who have been in very high-stress situations,” says Deirdre Leopold, admissions director at Harvard Business School. “They bring a different perspective.”
The GI Bill pays up to $17,500 a year in tuition, plus a living stipend. Another federal program called Yellow Ribbon will match aid from many top schools with an additional $10,000 annually. That means vets can receive federal tuition assistance of as much as $55,000 over two years (plus another $20,000 from schools)—a big chunk of the $100,000-plus charged by leading private programs. For less expensive public universities, the federal money can cover the entire bill.
The number of retiring veterans will likely jump by 10 percent to 15 percent, to more than 275,000 annually, over the next five years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Vets these days are better educated than ever and are more likely to pursue an advanced degree. In 2010, 4.3 percent of enlisted personnel entered service with at least a bachelor’s degree, up from 2.3 percent in 1990, according to federal statistics.
Recruiters from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business last year went to three military career fairs, up from just one in 2010. This year the school dedicated a financial aid officer to handle military tuition reimbursement. The University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business may start recruiting at military bases. Both the Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School last year introduced special days for vets to tour the campus, shadow current students, and meet professors.
The schools’ charm offensive is in part a response to a pledge by companies such as Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), and PepsiCo (PEP) to hire more veterans. More companies may soon follow: Congress in November passed the Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, which provides tax credits of $2,400 to $9,600 for each out-of-work veteran companies hire. Google is visiting 23 schools on its first student-veteran campus tour. PepsiCo this spring plans to launch a hiring website for former servicemen and women. Microsoft says military cybersecurity experts have been a big addition to its staff, and veterans with experience in logistics have helped streamline the supply chain for its Xbox business.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a lobbying group, wants to be sure former soldiers fully understand the level of student loan debt they may face in pursuing an MBA. Nonetheless, the group’s deputy policy director, Tom Tarantino, says he’s encouraged by the schools’ recruitment efforts and says the skills and experience of veterans will help improve MBA programs for all students. Vets “understand the concept of mission and what it means to be flexible in order to reach a goal,” he says. “Many times, their survival depended on that.”