EAB’s Lauren Edmonds and Natalie Ken discuss the programs, course modalities, and other educational preferences of active-duty military and veterans. The two explore differences between those looking for credentials that will help them advance their military career versus those looking to build on their military experience to launch successful post-military careers.
They also share advice for admissions teams on ways to signal to military students that your institution understands their challenges and will offer them maximum flexibility.
0:00:11.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we look at an important population of students who need and are deserving of special attention and, yes, a few accommodations. We're talking about students who are active duty or retired military. Military students tend to be highly motivated and they share many of the same characteristics and goals as other adult learners, but there are some key differences, too. Our experts talk about the kinds of programs and support they need, along with tips on how to engage and recruit military students. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.
0:00:53.2 Lauren Edmonds: Hello and welcome to office hours with EAB. My name is Lauren Edmonds and I'm a senior director here. I'm excited to be on the podcast today to talk about a subject that doesn't get enough attention in my view, namely how to engage, enroll and serve students who are either active duty military or military veterans. Joining me to talk about this is my colleague, Natalie Ken. Natalie, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your role at EAB?
0:01:20.7 Natalie Ken: Yeah. Hi Lauren, it's great to be here with you today. And as Lauren mentioned, my name is Natalie Ken and I'm currently an analyst here at EAB. Before, I was an analyst on our research team, I was a research associate on our market insights team where I noticed there was an opportunity for research on military student preferences. I worked on a project for a partner that heavily recruited military populations and saw an opportunity through that research for an analysis on military students degree preferences, and that's what we're gonna be discussing today.
0:01:51.7 LE: I'm gonna preface our discussion a bit for anyone who's not coming in convinced that this is an audience they should be engaging, which while maybe not something listeners would explicitly articulate, is often what we do see in reality. Years ago, I had the chance to attend a panel discussion that included experts on the for-profit education sector. One panelist in particular led an advocacy program for veteran students. She was bemoaning the high number of veteran students attending for-profit institutions, which she was describing as highly predatory. Another expert panel has really pushed on that point, however. Why? What was described as predatory was viewed by many students as highly helpful. Someone was overly attentive in your recruitment, they answered your call immediately, they completed paperwork on your behalf. If students were flooding to the "wrong institutions" was because the right ones weren't showing themselves to be a better option.
0:02:46.6 LE: And that's why I'm excited to talk about this today. We work with schools who are, who can be good options for military students, and there should be a population that they're eager to serve. It's a large population with some unique supports for their education, which we're going to talk more about. It's also a diverse population that's less often represented in higher education, often aligning with school's goals to serve more students of color or students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Military students are highly motivated. We often hear they're among the most successful demographics on campus, just given their experience and their discipline in the classroom. And last but not least, these are students we've made a lot of promises to as a society for their service to our country, and with our partners driven by their educational missions, this is really a population that deserves focus within that. So let's get started by putting some context around the size of this broad population of students, then we can get into some of those differences and similarities in terms of the educational interests and preferences that might impact our school strategies. Natalie, tell us how big is this market overall? Why should our partners be paying them special attention?
0:03:52.5 NK: Yeah, this is a great jumping off point. So an EAB research study from a few years ago suggested that we're talking about 7,000,000 military personnel with access to education benefits, but actually less than a third of eligible service members will use their benefits. So we're realistically talking about 2,000,000 military personnel will actually use these benefits, including veterans, active duty and reserves. While the available funding can make enrolling a bit more feasible than for most adult learners, military students still have to overcome significant obstacles, which can include competing demands on their time from work and families, concerns about returning to a classroom setting as an adult or insufficient K-12 preparation. There's a valuable opportunity for our partners to serve this audience, but we can't do it without carefully constructing programs and supports that meet their particular needs.
0:04:44.8 LE: Let's talk more about those needs and how they vary by those different sub-populations. First, for listeners who are less familiar with this population, what are some of the distinctions that really matter?
0:04:55.8 NK: In addition to our usual breakdowns like undergraduate versus graduate, for military students, you need to think about their military status and also their branch can influence their educational needs as well. So the largest population is veterans, those who have completed their service and are using their educational benefits to enter or advance in civilian careers. There's also active-duty service members who are currently serving and they're likely to be using their education benefits to advance within the military or to prepare for civilian life. And lastly, reserve members also receive educational benefits for their on-demand service, but not to the same extent as active duty or veteran students. To understand which sub-populations are the most prevalent in your service area, you can use the American Community Survey data or data from the Department of Defense. Also, the branches of the military vary in degree attainment as well as degree value, but in all branches, you need a bachelor's degree for commission as an officer. The Air Force is the most educated branch, and still 70% of their members don't hold a bachelor's degree. Both the Army and Navy have about three quarters of their members without bachelor's degrees, and in the Marine Corps, 87% of members don't have a bachelor's.
0:06:15.9 NK: So all branches have need for personnel with bachelor's level educations and an incentive to complete that education for advancement. The Air Force, however, places a greater emphasis on graduate and advanced education with 57% of officers holding advanced degrees. No other branch even has 10% of their officers holding advanced degrees.
0:06:37.6 LE: Let's talk first about that bachelor's audience then. What do military students need in undergraduate programs and how does that vary across the sub-populations you've already mentioned?
0:06:48.5 NK: Yeah, so for the 78% of active duty enlisted that don't yet hold a bachelor's degree, they'll prioritize time to completion when selecting a degree program in order to achieve promotion quickly. Active-duty military also seek flexibility, and this can come before enrollment in the form of extended application deadlines to accommodate deployments and relocations or even after enrollment in the form of multiple start dates and easy drop courses due to that potential to relocate or stop out. Among veterans, while speed to completion and flexibility still matter, they're going to prioritize alignment with their civilian career opportunities, looking where they can translate the skills learned in the military to the job market. Additionally, military education benefits differ between active duty and veteran students. For example, active-duty service members have access to a tuition assistance program while they are serving, giving them the ability to use higher education degree to advance in the ranks.
0:07:52.4 NK: However, as an article by the Hechinger Report in 2020 noted, many branches made cuts to tuition assistance benefits at the onset of the pandemic, making it harder for active-duty military members to go to school while serving. To help enroll active-duty members, Syracuse University matches the tuition assistance rate for service members using their education benefits for a part-time or online education at the university. And Southern New Hampshire University offers a 30% tuition discount for active-duty service members and their spouses. Many states have also had initiatives over the years to offer in-state tuition rates at public colleges for all military service members, which can greatly lower cost, even if a tuition match or discount isn't available. Another way that we've seen schools ensure military students can afford their education is addressing barriers like application fees. University funding or alumni donations can allow you to eliminate that obstacle for your prospective military students. Overall, keeping costs low, prioritizing a short time to completion and offering degree flexibility can go a long way to ensure your degree program is prioritizing the complex needs of military students.
0:09:09.6 LE: I can echo the flexibility plan anecdotally, too. With this conversation of mine, I asked a friend who completed his bachelor's using his veteran’s benefits, what schools need to be doing. His top point was to make programs more accessible. Adding to what you've already mentioned, emphasize on online delivery for an audience that might need to relocate suddenly, or at the very least is likely enrolled or they're juggling jobs and families. Online delivery can often feel assumed in these discussions, but it isn't every program's first inclination. When you're talking about an audience of adults, however, it always needs to be under consideration. Beyond that program design, speed and flexibility, what kinds of undergrad degrees are both these populations really going for?
0:09:52.8 NK: Yeah, now we're getting into the meat of my blog post. So using data from the National Center of Education Statistics Postsecondary Student Aid Study, I determined that military students of all population seeking an undergraduate degree looked for programs in transportation and materials moving, security and protective services and computer and information sciences. Programs in these fields include things like information technology/security and supply chain and logistics. Some examples include the Bachelor of Professional Studies in Cyber Security Administration at Syracuse University and the Bachelor of Arts and Supply Chain Management at American Military University. Across all military populations and desired degree levels, students sought out degrees in security and protective services. This is likely because these programs incorporate many skills acquired during a service member's duty and are in a field in which they may already have some experience.
0:10:50.6 LE: In addition to those popular programs in security and protective services then, what sort of degree programs are more popular for students seeking grad degrees in terms of either helping them earn promotions or to gain employment after their service?
0:11:04.5 NK: Yeah, great question. Across all military populations, those seeking graduate level programs generally go for programs in business management and marketing in addition to security and protective services. Programs that fall within these fields include a Master of Business Administration and, of course, information and cyber security programs.
0:11:24.4 LE: And as we've been talking about across both these bachelor's and master's degrees, but especially those bachelor's degrees, speed and time to completion really matter. How can our partners be offering military students accelerated degree timelines?
0:11:38.7 NK: Yeah, this is such an important question. So EAB has identified three strategies that can help military students achieve their degrees sooner, and the first being awarding academic credit for military training and offering degrees that match commonly to military areas of expertise that will accept a high number of credits for prior learning because of their relevance. That's part of the reason, again, for the prevalence of security-related or supply chain majors. A great example is at the University of South Florida where there's a program called V-Care where in only five semesters, veterans with medic training complete an in-demand nursing degree and prepares them for a career as a registered nurse. Organizations like the American Council on Education can be helpful here in translating trainings into academic credit. Second is designing degrees with quick completion options. Offering credit for military training is a great way to speed up degree completion time. Another example at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where in some master’s programs, students can complete a thesis instead of a capstone and thus graduate faster with 30 credits rather than 36. And finally, offering frequent start dates. At American Military University, students can enter every month, so they aren't just waiting to get started.
0:13:00.6 NK: Similarly at Syracuse University, students can take shorter eight-week classes completely online and have six start dates throughout the year. Additionally, Syracuse offers nine Bachelor of Professional Studies programs for their active-duty service members that are geared specifically toward career advancement. These programs work on developing specific skills that make graduates successful when entering or advancing in the workplace.
0:13:25.8 LE: And you've been mentioning how for veterans as well as active-duty military who are preparing for civilian life, those degrees that are aligned with future career opportunities and workplaces are really important. Given your experience on the Market Insights team, can you talk about how listeners should think about identifying programs that are going to value military training and experience but also equipping students for post-military careers?
0:13:50.8 NK: Yes. Like all adult learners, military students are motivated by the impact education will have on their lives, especially in their career progression and earning potential. Outside of the military, that's going to mean alignment with in-demand jobs. As a market insights associate, we could help partners answer this question in one of two ways. So first, if a partner isn't sure what to offer with the regional needs, we could do a market opportunity scan to identify what jobs had the greatest labor market opportunity regionally. These were the jobs with the greatest demand and projection employment over time, so you would know that you were putting your graduates on a strong footing job-wise, then it's a matter of matching those jobs to relevant academic programs and ensuring there isn't a concerning competitive outlook for those programs. Another way market insights can help is when a partner already has an idea of what they want to offer to military students. In that case, we can vet a program in a program feasibility study. We'd confirm there's a labor market for graduates and assess the competitive landscape programs would enter. We could also analyze competitor programs and apply our program design expertise to give partners advice on how to stand out to prospective military students.
0:15:10.3 NK: With a military audience in mind, you would imagine that would be particularly valuable comparing against schools with demonstrated success serving military populations. Of course, all of this is about getting the right programs available, but that's just one step. And my work didn't get into how to actually recruit military students or support military-affiliated students once they're actually enrolled, but obviously that's a crucial part of this conversation, too. Lauren, what do our partners serving military students need to emphasize?
0:15:43.4 LE: We've learned that our partnership focus on three things, people, policies and community. Starting with people on their recruitment and admissions end, you need to be able to review military transcripts and award credit for prior learning and transfer credits as appropriate. Reviewing the joint services transfer quickly is especially important, or you're going to risk losing those students to competitors. As you mentioned earlier, ACE can speed this process up. And when students are enrolled, then you'll need specialized advisors to ensure they make the most use of those prior credits and that they're on track to graduate in the right program for them. Another essential role, both for supporting your students and for equipping your institution, is someone who's an expert in military educational benefits and who's closely tracking relevant legislation and regulation. And when we look at the period starting in 2009, there were four major updates to military educational benefits across the decade. Then just this December, the Education Department released new guidance on calculating federal revenue, that as of July, is going to include counting your military students educational benefits. So schools are going to need someone on campus to both help students and the institution navigate this ever-evolving bureaucracy.
0:17:00.7 LE: As we talk about policies, if you're enrolling active-duty students or even reserves, you'll need to make course drops and refunds easy in the right circumstances. And to ensure that students have easy off-on ramps, your students might be deployed, relocated or otherwise impacted while they're enrolled, and they need to be able to balance their education with those major life changes. Sometimes that's going to mean they're taking a break, but you wanna help ensure that's a pause and not a stop. Allowing students to exit classes without impacting their academic standing is important and also facilitating that return. We've seen one university that kept their active-duty students registration accounts active for two whole years after their departure. Their standard was just two semesters, but they wanted those military students to have registration access as soon as they were able to return. Deployment and relocation can also create financial challenges for military students and their families, so re-funding tuition fees, even textbook costs can all make that less daunting. Lastly, whether it's a physical space on campus or an online channel, you do wanna offer military students a true community hub.
0:18:10.7 LE: They're coming to your schools with a distinct set of life experiences that often set them apart from your typical student. Finding a sense of belonging and community is going to be key. A specialized orientation can be valuable from this perspective, both to showcase those relevant resources and services, but also to develop cohorts of military students early on. We've seen this requires about a minimum of a 90-minute session or so to address the benefits process, introduce dedicated campus support groups, outline larger community resources. But these can expand to half-day programs that include academic advising sessions or even multi-day events to build deeper community. And of course, it's that showcasing and promotion that matters, too. Great support for your military students isn't helpful if prospective or current students don't know that it's there.
0:19:02.7 NK: Yeah, Lauren, as you mentioned that, let's talk recruitment. Once schools have the right programs, people, policies and community supports in place, how do they go about getting military and former military students on to campus or online?
0:19:16.8 LE: I'm glad you bring that up. That was my friend's second major point on what schools are often missing, just simply they have to market to this population. Much of it comes back to often overlooked principles of adult learner recruitment. You need to tune into their intent and to communicate an appealing return on investment. We've already been talking about intent. Students are aiming either to move up within the service or to equip themselves for civilian careers post-service. So if you're targeting active duty military, lean heavily into those messages about your flexibility and speed to completion, so you're addressing the points they care most about. Given their focus on speed, you'll also want to be sure your school is sufficiently responsive. You need to aim for quick within a day replies to inquiries and fast transcript reviews, for example. These aren't students who have time to wait for you. For the students who are looking ahead to civilian careers, it's the outcome you need to focus on, or the return side of the return on investment equation. When we're talking about communicating those outcomes, prioritize two points. First, you need outcomes data.
0:20:25.9 LE: The more specific, the better, so if you can communicate a placement rate or success of military students within your program, that's the ideal. Even without that, stats on program graduate success overall or sample titles or employers are all going to be extremely valuable. As a last option, if you don't have program-specific data, be sure you're including labor market data broadly. The number of relevant jobs posted last year, for example, or the types of skills you're teaching that employers are demanding. Two, be sure your website highlights this data. This is a top concern for prospective students, so make it a top feature of your program webpage. Get those stats out front and center. You wanna feature testimonials for a proof in action so your military students can see students like them succeeding in the program and in their future careers.
0:21:17.8 LE: With one last note on that testimonials piece, humans love testimonials because it feels like that personalized word of mouth recommendation and we always wanna know what we're investing in worked for someone. So what's even better than that testimonial, the literal word-of-mouth recommendation. Compared to other adult learners, veteran students particularly have much denser networks, they share information more easily. So through all this, make sure you're earning that personal recommendation and make it easy for your students and your alumni to share. Content marketing materials that they can share with their communities, for example, can be a good way to provide value to service members while encouraging discussion of your offerings.
0:21:56.0 NK: Great, thanks for outlining where schools need to invest and bring military students into and through these programs successfully. With that, shall we wrap it up?
0:22:05.3 LE: I think so. Thank you again, Natalie, for analysing the data around military students enrollment and sharing your findings with us.
0:22:12.9 NK: Thanks so much for having me, Lauren.
0:22:20.3 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we unpack findings from a new survey of higher ed leaders to find out how they believe they are going to grow graduate enrollments. Until then, thank you for your time.
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