Military Wire: Trade secrets on how one master’s program attracts veterans

Michael Schindler
Michael Schindler

Despite the uptick in veteran employment, a considerable number of veterans and their family members are still choosing to pursue a college degree. More than half of veterans who began using their GI Bill benefits between 2002 and 2010 went on to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate by June 2013.

This is good news, considering more than three-quarters of the jobs in the next 10 years will require a college degree.

With approximately $34 billion being spent over the last decade-plus on the GI Bill, taxpayers want to know that their money is going to good use in preparing the next generation of leaders; and while some universities and colleges compete to attract the pre-paid tuition, a handful of institutions are looking beyond the dollars and attracting individuals who possess real-world experience that can add to their college environment.

One such institution is Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, located in Pittsburgh, Penn.

I had the chance to speak with both Kelly Wilson, Executive Director of Masters Admissions at Tepper, and former Army Captain and MBA candidate Matthew McElhaney on what makes Tepper School of Business an attractive choice for transitioning service members and their families.

I could shorten the article by simply stating “they really care,” and Matthew picked up on that when touring the campus – but that would do the institution and those seeking their next mission in getting a degree a great disservice.

What follows are a few of the trade secrets.

CMU and Tepper School of Business decided to invest countless hours better understanding today’s veteran and how their campus and surrounding community could support them. And while this may seem like a relatively simple first step, it is often overlooked.

Ms. Wilson shared how the school first decided that today’s veterans were a key factor in adding to the school’s diversity strategy — not only in demographics or race, but in experience. A considerable number of transitioning veterans possess not only leadership skills, which is attractive to most institutions and employers, but the ability to balance a number of distractions while staying focused on mission — or in college terms, graduating.

Tepper isn’t just interested in attracting and enrolling veterans but ensuring they graduate.

Part of ensuring they graduate comes with highlighting what the community offers in the way of a support network. Ms. Wilson and her team make sure incoming student veterans understand that aside from Tepper being a top-ranked business school and having an ROTC program on campus, it is located close to a VA Hospital, a commissary, and eight very active veteran organizations.

Studies show that when community-based resources collaborate with college-based services, veteran involvement and graduation success rates improve considerably. National Louis University, based out of Chicago, found that when they deployed this approach, NLU’s student veterans demonstrated an 84 percent engagement rate, a 34 percent improvement in term-to-term retention rates, and an 87 percent employment rate.

One more “secret” Ms. Wilson shared was that Tepper worked aggressively to make the admissions process simpler. They provide webinars on how to prepare ones resume, how to translate military experience into civilian terms, and online Q/A sessions with their lead recruiter and expert, Debbie – who happens to be a military spouse.

When I asked former Army Captain and MBA candidate Matthew McElhaney why he chose Tepper, aside from the standard reputation and how quickly the college responded to his inquiries (he applied to over seven programs), it came down to Tepper’s hybrid online program. He could go to a top-rated school with a solid reputation and still pursue his desire to work.

For Matthew, being able to take courses online, visit campus at his leisure or when needed and still hold down his job at Chesapeake Energy was a true win. Tepper offered more than just online classes – they offered him the ability to personalize his experience and were flexible.

Coming from a structured environment and then having to decide what school to attend is no easy task for some. Matthew shared that investing time to identify what you want from a college experience and then identifying what colleges are a fit with your goals makes the experience less daunting.

Matthew suggested that those who desire to go to college after their service seek “tribal knowledge”;  find someone who has gone before you and ask them how they navigated their situation. Pick six to eight schools from your list of 12-15 that you identified are a match with your personality and then do your research. For Matthew, working backward helped him land on his school of choice – he determined where he wanted to be in 20 years and then set his target on the schools that were going to help him get there.

One final note Matthew shared was to not get discouraged should you get rejected. If you are applying to really great schools, don’t take rejection personally. Matthew admitted it is difficult when a rejection letter comes, but he was very clear that it doesn’t define you. His advice is to apply to the schools you want to and if you get rejected, press on, move forward. You will find a program that fits.

Bottom line: CMU and Tepper School of Business understand the value of the individual who wore or wears the uniform – and it shows in not only how they determine who is admitted but also in the voice of those veterans who attend. And for those of you who are preparing to go after your post-secondary degree, get those Letters of Recommendation. Start those early. You will need them.

— By Michael Schindler

Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.” He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.

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