From the front line to the front row

January 13, 2014

Former Army Capt. Van Standifer, 34, chose to begin his transition to the civilian world by getting an MBA. (Teddy Wolff/For Express)

After four years in the Army, Van Standifer says he finds himself pondering the age-old question: What do I want to be when I grow up?

“Military service was something I always wanted to do,” Standifer, 34, says. “But I didn’t want to make a career out of it.”

To help him transition from military service to a new career, the former Army captain with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team decided to enroll in the full-time Master of Business Administration program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Many vets look to MBA programs as they transition from military service into the next step of their careers, says Shari Hubert, the associate dean of MBA admissions for Georgetown’s McDonough School.

In Standifer’s case, an MBA is a chance to discover what that next step might be.

“It’s short enough where you don’t feel like you’re putting your life on hold, but long enough to let you shift gears as you’re transitioning out,” he says. Standifer says the internship component of Georgetown’s MBA program was a big help in determining what he wanted to do next. He completed his at an Atlanta-based startup within GE’s Energy Management division last summer. He’s aiming for a job in the energy sector.

Business schools say veterans arrive already highly qualified because of the years of leadership skills gained from military training and service. “Military students are some of our best students,” Hubert says.

According to a recent survey by Military MBA, a group that helps service members find MBA programs, military enrollees in MBA programs have nearly doubled from 4.4 percent of all incoming MBA students in 2010 to 8.1 percent in 2012.

And among employers, the demand for military vets with an MBA degree is high, says the group’s executive director Greg Eisenbarth. Another survey by the group found that military MBAs reported a 93.5 percent employment rate within a few months of graduation compared with 62 percent employment rates for traditional MBA graduates.

“Employers are looking for them,” Eisenbarth says. “They learn leadership from the ground up, at a very young and formative age.”

Standifer agrees that he’ll bring something unique to his next job, given his military training. “You get more responsibility, at a younger age, than most folks do working in industry and the private sector,” he says.

At George Mason University, the 18- to 20-month executive MBA has a national defense track that may appeal to vets who want to remain within the defense sector but transition to the private sector.

According to J.P. Auffret, director of George Mason’s executive MBA program, between 30 percent and 40 percent of executive MBA program participants are in the military or are military veterans.

The executive MBA works well for students with full-time jobs because it lets them take either online classes or a blend of on-campus and online classes. (The online-only program costs less, at $60,700, compared with $76,500 for the online/in-class program.)

The program sees a range of students, from those with eight to 10 years of experience to others with decades of military service.

“Some are trying to advance within the military. Others are looking to transition in a couple years,” Auffret says.

The national defense track includes two stays in D.C. during which students meet for a few days with executives from the Defense Department, other areas of government and the private sector.

For James “Mouse” Neumeister, 58, a former Air Force colonel, the degree isn’t a ticket out of government service, but a means of better understanding the private industry that he interacts with.

“While I don’t necessarily see myself jumping to private industry anytime soon, almost anything I do involves working with private industry, which builds the systems we use in the Coast Guard,” says Neumeister, who started at the U.S. Coast Guard in 2011 after 30 years of active duty in the Air Force and positions within the Homeland Security Department.

Capt. Neville Welch, 43, a Marine Corps finance officer, plans to stay in the military for several years before venturing into the private sector to pursue his CPA and open a financial planning business. He’s getting his MBA from Webster University, one of the largest providers of graduate-level military education in the U.S. More than 7,000 of Webster’s 22,000 students have a military connection, and the program has satellite campuses at military bases across the country, including in the D.C. area.

Other business schools in the area are “military-friendly” in different ways. Georgetown is one of many that offer such perks and services as financial assistance, waived application fees, dedicated administrative offices and student groups for veterans and active-duty service members.

Through the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, anyone who has served at least 90 days of active duty since Sept. 10, 2001, can get their full in-state tuition and fees covered at public schools, and up to a capped amount ($19,198 for the 2013 academic year) for out-of-state tuition or private universities. The funding applies to grad programs as well as undergrad.

Universities can also participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides additional funds to military personnel with at least 36 months of active-duty service. Under that program, Georgetown provides $7,500 per year for a limited number of military students, which the Veterans Affairs Department then matches. So a veteran can get $15,000 a year, on top of other VA funding, toward the $40,000-$50,000 annual tuition and fees of a typical MBA in this region.

American University also participates in the program, while the University of Maryland has several scholarships for student-veterans.

“The military prides itself on returning quality citizens back to the civilian world,” Welch says. “One way is by investing in their education.”

The Female Factor

As the number of women in the military increases, grad schools may see the number of female military MBA candidates rise as well. Though there’s little data on the number of female veterans who seek the degree, this has been a small but important group, says Greg Eisenbarth, executive director of Military MBA, a group that helps service members research MBA programs.

“Almost all of the schools we work with are intensely interested in getting women officers,” Eisenbarth says.

After 13 years in the Air Force, Felicia Blair, 36, just finished the online executive MBA program at George Mason University while working full time at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. Though she was one of the only women in her class, she says she’d recommend the program “for anyone.”

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