When Lenore Kistinger left the US marines in 2007, she wanted an MBA from a top school but was intimidated by the price. “A combination of draining all of my savings and government loans – I thought those were my only two options.”
But then she heard about a Wharton fellowship from a leading bank. On the day of her interview, she walked into the wrong room and met a retired marine lieutenant colonel. “We met for two minutes, he saw I was a marine and he said, ‘give me your résumé so I can vote for you later’.” She received the fellowship.
Now she works at SoFi, the private student lender that offers competitive loans for top-tier schools. She is working on a fund that raises money from veteran investors and lends it to students with military backgrounds.
“I’m very proud of where I went to graduate school but I’m more likely to help another veteran or marine before I help someone from my alma mater,” she says.
Veterans have long relied on informal connections to gain a foothold in the corporate world. As more veterans seek spots in MBA programmes and at top companies, an array of services are tapping these networks to help reduce education costs and smooth the transition to the corporate world.
“On Wall Street, good veteran candidates’ résumés fly around. We’re trying to formalise that,” says Ms Kistinger.
With the US winding down its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon slashing $487bn in spending over the next decade, an estimated 1m service members are expected to leave the military by 2016. For many moving into civilian life, business school is an appealing prospect.
“A good number of people who would have stayed in the military 10 years ago are looking to get out,” says Yinon Weiss, a marine and army special forces veteran and 2011 Harvard Business School graduate who founded RallyPoint, a job networking site for veterans.
MBA enrolments of students with military backgrounds nearly doubled to 8.1 per cent last year from 4.4 per cent in 2010, according to a survey by Military MBA, an education and employment network.
The post-9/11 GI bill, which went into effect in 2009, has also been a driver, as it helps defray education costs. It pays instate public university tuition for those who have served at least three years on active duty since September 2001. Additional support is available from the Yellow Ribbon Program, a partnership with business schools.
However, these benefits make a small dent in the costs of many private programmes, which can exceed $150,000. To cover the rest, there are the usual options of tapping into savings and borrowing. SoFi estimates that the average veteran in a private graduate programme finishes school with $50,000 of debt.
“Even for those who get 100 per cent of GI bill benefits, it’s grossly under the cost of some of these private institutions,” says Tom Pae, a former army captain who will start his second year at Columbia Business School in September. He turned to SoFi for a loan at a better rate than he was offered by other lenders and the government.
Business schools are also designing programmes that help veterans translate military leadership skills to the corporate environment and earn credit for their prior training, which can cut costs and time at school.
Whitman School of Management, Syracuse, the State University of New York’s Empire State College and the University of South Florida St Petersburg last year won grants from the Graduate Management Admission Council to develop courses for veterans.
“It helps veterans to convert their existing competencies and prior knowledge into graduate-level credits,” says Alan Belasen, Empire State’s MBA chairman. In addition, the classes “Help to fine tune the tools and concepts necessary to transition themselves from military to civilian lives.”
Still, veterans who have found success in corporate settings say it is their affiliation with the military that has often helped smooth their paths.
“Over the past 10 years when deployment cycles have been so high, people have been out of the country with no chance to network,” says Ian Thomson, a former marine and Iese graduate who works at a San Francisco technology start-up. “Before, there were a lot of second world war veterans in senior management positions opening doors for young vets coming out of combat.”
Today, he says, “the density of [the old] networks is replaced by LinkedIn” – and loose groups of veterans like the one he has helped create in Silicon Valley, which get together regularly to share support, advice and employment opportunities.