The Military Appeal: MBA Programs Love Veterans, And The Feeling Is Mutual

Military veterans always have been attractive candidates at the leading business schools. AT UNC Kenan-Flagler, they comprise 5% of the MBA Class of 2022.

Jack DeBell was looking for more than an MBA program. He was looking for a home.

After a three-year stint in the Army, DeBell was a civilian again, working for a Virginia-based defense contractor. He knew an MBA would supercharge his career — but it had to be the right fit. And it had to be the right location for him and his fiancée.

A native of the Washington, D.C. area, DeBell applied to six major U.S. MBA programs up and down the East Coast. Some waitlisted him. Some made offers. One did both — Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. And it was there that he found the fit he was looking for, as a veteran and as someone with a long career ahead.

“I was looking for three things for a full-time MBA program,” says DeBell, who graduated this spring with the Class of 2020. “Obviously, opportunity afterwards. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re there. That’s what we were chasing after. And for me, the employment opportunities that I had seen, the alumni I had gotten to speak to, I was excited about the employment opportunities that happened afterwards at UNC.

“The second is, I felt like the students that I was talking to during the recruiting process were going to be indicative of the alumni network I would tap into, and of what UNC was looking for in a student if they were recruiting, as well. And so I meshed well with the students that I spoke to during my recruitment process. A big part of that was the veterans association there. It was phenomenal — I slipped right in. I mean, I probably went back two or three times just to see folks and get a better feel for the school and everything. But I felt like that would be indicative of the class that I would come in with.

“And then third was, I knew that my fiancée would eventually move down to Chapel Hill as well. And so I was looking for a home. This wasn’t just a blip on my radar. I wanted somewhere that felt like a home and a community for two years. And UNC absolutely met every single aspect of that. We had a phenomenal time in Chapel Hill. It was super fun.”


Jack DeBell. Courtesy photo

Across graduate business education in the U.S., military veterans have always been appealing candidates. In the top 25 programs, former members of the military generally make up 5% to 10% of any given cohort. And B-schools are eager to attract more. Scholarships and fellowships are plentiful, and veterans clubs and associations given prominence and support.

Why? Because veterans bring unique work experience and outlook that is different from nonmilitary MBA candidates. Often they have performed difficult tasks under immense pressure, and developed skill sets that allow them to thrive in high-stress environments. Admissions teams know that admitting candidates with military experience enhances the diversity of any MBA class.

At Harvard Business School, application fees are waived for veterans, and each admitted MBA candidate is offered $20,000, which is matched by the Veterans Administration for a total of $40,000. This year, to celebrate Veteran Day, HBS is staging a week of programming titled “Discover the Military Community at HBS,” featuring fireside chats with professors and alumni, an Armed Forces Alumni Association leadership panel, and more.

In addition to having well-established and energetically helpful veterans clubs, application fees are waived for veterans and grant monies offered at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, at Stanford Graduate School of Business, at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, at MIT Sloan School of Management — and at just about any other B-school in the Poets&Quants top 50. And there are other services and programs, not affiliated with a school, that help veterans, whether they are planing to go directly from service to school or they have spent time in the workforce since discharge. The most well-known is Service to School, which boasts that it can help service members achieve “Admission Accomplished!”

The veterans association at Kenan-Flagler was a big reason that Jack DeBell applied and enrolled at UNC. The 40- to 50-strong group allowed him to arrive on campus with a strong network already in place. In his first year, DeBell became so involved with it that he was elected president for his second year.

“In the veteran network, we’re very fortunate to have this common bond already coming in,” DeBell tells P&Q. “I would argue most students don’t come in with a shared experience to that same level. Every school I went to, I immediately connected with the veterans associations at those schools. And just based on my interaction with the veterans association in my recruiting process at UNC, I knew that was what I wanted to be involved with, and eventually put in my kind of ticket to run — which I eventually was fortunate enough to be elected president for my second year.”

UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Class Year % Military Number Class Size
Class of 2019 5% 15 290
Class of 2020 6% 16 276
Class of 2021 8% 20 252
Class of 2022 5% 16 344


At UNC, like other prominent U.S. MBA programs, veterans who earn their MBAs overwhelmingly go on to great career success, says Tammy Samuels, executive director of career and leadership for MBA programs at the Kenan-Flagler School.

“Our veterans see high success rates as they transition out of the military or advance in their civilian careers,” Samuels says. “Many operations and strategy roles are a natural fit for veterans, but beyond that we see many land in corporate finance, leadership and consulting roles as well. Their outcomes span a broad range of industries and functions, as their experience in the military makes them highly versatile candidates. Veterans are well-qualified because of their leadership, management, strategy and operations skills along with their ability to make decisions in extraordinary situations while remaining composed, organized and resourceful.

“When you combine these top desired attributes with the military organizational structure of exposing their members to a variety of positions every few years, the demand for these students is unquestionable. Veteran talent is highly sought after with many companies developing special military recruiting programs across the country.”

All applicants to the full-time MBA at UNC are considered for merit-based fellowships through the admission process, Samuels says, and for those who are eligible for Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to cover their tuition and fees — those like Jack DeBell — fellowship funds have been set aside to assist in covering indirect expenses like room, board, etc. After students enroll, she adds, the school also offers limited fellowship funding to assist in covering costs associated with attending the annual Veterans Conference and, if funding is available, to offset additional course fees associated with enrollment in electives such as Washington Campus, Doing Business In (DBI), MBA Exchange, and Global Immersion Elective (GIE).

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