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Military MBA Enrollment Surges

The percentage of military students enrolled in MBA programs has nearly doubled in the past two years. Military enrollments climbed from a mere 4.41% of total enrollments in 2010 to 8.1% in 2012, according to Military MBA, an education network for officers.

The survey, which polled some 22,300 military and traditional students across more than 50 U.S. degree programs, revealed that MBA programs are welcoming more military students into their ranks.

The trend shows no sign of abating anytime soon, according to Greg Eisenbarth, executive director of Military MBA. Department of Defense budget cuts and troop withdrawals will push tens of thousands of service members into the civilian world and many of them are eager to explore opportunities in higher education. These former servicemen and women are expected to boost military MBA enrollment numbers even further, he says.

MILITARY ACCOUNT FOR ONE IN FIVE  ONLINE MBA ENROLLMENTS

Military men and women flocked to blended online MBA programs last year.  Nearly one in five (19%) of all online enrollments were military. Armed Forces personnel were least represented in the traditional, full-time MBA programs, where they accounted for 4% of the total enrollments.  Eisenbarth attributes online programs’ popularity to logistical circumstances.  For most officers stationed on a base or deployed overseas, residency-based programs simply aren’t an option, he says.

However, Eisenbarth predicts these numbers will change as defense spending cuts go into effect and the drawdown continues.  “A big part of  transitioning out of the military is to get an education for a civilian career,” he says. “Now I think you’re going to see greater demand for MBA programs, and most MBA schools certainly wrap their arms around getting more military students into what they’re providing.”  

DOUBLE-DIGIT DECLINE FOR OVERALL MBA APPLICATIONS IN 2012

Interestingly, overall full-time MBA applications fell during the same period. The Wall Street Journal reported a 22% decline in applications for full-time, two-year MBA programs in 2012, following a 10% drop in 2011. But the downturn hasn’t stopped military candidates from signing up, and admissions committees are eager to welcome them.

B-school admissions teams around the country are finding that military applicants add value to their classmates and to their programs, says Dan Bauer, managing director of consulting firm The MBA Exchange. “Military applicants tend to be exceptionally focused, mature and self-motivated but also non-traditional,” he adds. Bauer, a U.S. Army veteran, says his firm counts four former service members among its consulting team. “Making real-time decisions with limited information – literally and figuratively – under fire has been an everyday occurrence for most military MBAs,” he says. Military applicants also know how to lead groups, excel as a team and adhere to strict ethical codes – desirable traits in any business school applicant.

‘MILITARY OFFICERS REALIZE THAT THE MBA CREDENTIAL MATTERS’

From the candidates’ side, a growing number of officers are signing up for MBA programs to jumpstart their careers.  “When it comes to student demand,  a lot of military officers realize that the MBA credential matters in civilian career paths and leadership positions,” Eisenbarth says. He points out that most military officers have managed dozens of people and multi-million-dollar budgets. “They are looking to take on a certain amount of responsibility when they come out,” he adds.

An MBA education can also help officers acquire civilian-world credentials in a crunched timetable. Skill sets such as infantry and armor lack private-sector parallels so candidates turn to b-school to ramp up quickly, Bauer says.  Military candidates can also expect to find connections, future career opportunities and a structured environment for a smoother transition to civilian life, he adds.

It helps that the GI Bill will pay up to $17,500 a year in tuition, plus a living stipend. Another federal program known as Yellow Ribbon will match aid from many top schools with an additional $10,000 annually. So vets can gain federal tuition assistance of as much as $55,000 over two years.

‘GOOD MBA SCHOOLS WILL STEP UP’   

Service members are also enrolling at the highest levels of business education.  Military enrollments in executive MBA programs tipped 7.7%. They also accounted for 6.42% of enrollees in evening or part-time programs, many of which offer advanced curricula for working professionals.

While applauding the gains in military MBA education, Eisenbarth cautions that business schools must also commit to maximizing the potential of these students. Gestures such as bringing veterans’ associations on campus and ensuring the availability of veteran-specific resources are important, he says. “While there’s an opportunity, there’s a corresponding set of responsibilities, and I think good MBA schools will step up and do those sorts of things,” he says.