Using An Entrepreneurial Mindset To Help Military Veterans Pursue College Degrees

William Kindred is an HR manager at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, MA and Nelson Olivier is associate director of Innovative Medicines at Astra Zeneca in Waltham, MA. Both are military veterans and members of the MIT EMBA class of 2017.

When enlisted veterans leave the military, a major problem is the lack of quality assistance programs to help them attain a higher education. According to a 2012 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, only 26.7% of post-9/11 veterans reported the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher. And the Department of Education NCES reports that the completion rate for college-level student veterans between 2003 and 2009 was 9.9%. While the current studies present varying findings, none of them are good.

Contributing factors to this problem include lack of academic confidence and the failure to understand the “terrain” of higher education. In addition, many military members spend their benefits on online programs at for-profit schools, but those credits often don’t transfer to other schools.

While getting a bachelor’s degree may seem daunting — especially for vets who didn’t have stellar GPAs in high school — going to a top tier university isn’t even on the list of their perceived possibilities.

With the need for more STEM majors in the U.S., this is a societal issue too. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Readiness reports that 74% of transitioning enlisted members want to major in a STEM field. Yet, according to the VA, only 36% of GI Bill dollars are being directed toward student veterans pursuing STEM majors. Further, the SVA’s NVEST database states that only 14.4% of student veterans attain a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field.

Top schools like MIT have taken notice of this issue. With low numbers of veteran undergraduate students (11 total in the 2017-18 academic year), MIT administrators approached students in the EMBA program, which has a much larger veteran population, for ideas.

Being at MIT Sloan, where the mission of developing leaders to positively impact the world is not taken lightly, we jumped on this problem. We had learned during IDEA Week (a course otherwise known as Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurial Advantage) how to think in terms of solving a problem and creating value. Later, during the Leading with Impact course, teams of EMBA students worked with nonprofit organizations to look at a problem and create an executable plan. Addressing this problem for veterans was right up our alley as MIT EMBA students.

It also was up our alley because, years ago, we had left the military and saw the lack of quality transition programs first-hand. Whether you leave the military as an officer or from the enlisted ranks, the separation process is the same: very basic exposure to the civilian world. Yet, it is critical for enlisted veterans to learn about college benefits, how to consume academic literature and apply critical thinking skills, and attain the science and math skills needed for college-level STEM courses.

Our plan was to connect MIT with the Warrior Scholars Project (WSP), which was founded by a student veteran in 2012 to address this issue. The WSP holds workshops at top colleges each summer for veterans transitioning from active duty to life as a college student. The veterans learn the skills and habits necessary to succeed in today’s university classroom. Approximately 65% of WSP scholars are the first generation in their family to go to college.

Bringing the WSP to MIT seemed like the perfect way to try to help veterans — and increase their exposure to MIT. With a week-long WSP program already planned at Harvard University focused on humanities, we organized a second-week focused on STEM topics on the MIT campus.

With enthusiastic support from MIT, 15 student veterans spent 14-16 hours each day for six days at MIT this summer. The WSP paid for their housing, meals, and classroom time while faculty delivered the curriculum pro bono. Professors participating in the program represented many departments at MIT, including MIT Sloan, Physics, the MIT Kavil Institute, and the Department of Urban Studies & Planning.

Acceptance into the WSP is a signal to veterans that they have what it takes to come to a top school and succeed. The workshop is essentially a rigorous simulation of what it will be like as a student, but they also see the resources available like tutors, office hours, and support from fellow students — all the tools any college student has at hand.

Our hope is that they depart with the confidence to pursue a degree at a top-tier college and have a greater understanding of their benefits as veterans, the application process, and points of contact for assistance.

While it’s too soon to know the future paths of those 15 veterans who came to MIT this summer, the WSP has a remarkably high success rate. Of the WSP alumni who began undergraduate programs in 2012 and 2013, 90% have graduated.

When we came to MIT, we knew the EMBA program would be transformational for our careers, but this collaboration is helping us make a bigger impact in the veteran community. The EMBA program not only teaches students about business, it creates an entrepreneurial mindset where you are inspired to help solve societal problems to make a positive difference in the world. Our charge to our fellow EMBA students is “make a difference.”

To read a related MIT article on the WSP, click here.