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The Military Pathway Opens Doors to Academic and Career Success

By Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston | April 2021

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“The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools.”
-Sir William Francis Butler

Your role as a school counselor includes helping students plan for postsecondary options. Although every student’s path is different, the drive to encourage a college education is persistent. Statistics show the majority of high school graduates will move on to college, but those who choose the military pathway still have a multitude of higher education options available to them. To begin, 100 percent of the 78,000 officers on active duty have a college degree, and our enlisted force is the most educated it’s been in our nation’s history. Simply put, to think high school students must choose between college and the military isn’t the case. To continue building a professional, all-volunteer force, the military pathway must include college.

Paying for college is a military benefit most people are aware of and soldiers take advantage of the opportunity at high rates. Recent data shows about 26 percent of soldiers have taken at least one college class before joining the Army. At about two and a half years into their military career, that percentage increases to 42 percent. For noncommissioned officers, at about eight years of service, the number climbs to 67 percent. This is in large part because soldiers are automatically awarded up to $4,000 in use-or-lose scholarships annually for higher education expenses after they complete their first year of enlistment. Soldiers can also use that money to obtain credentials to help them be successful in their post-military life.

As mentioned, all commissioned officers must have a bachelor’s degree. Army ROTC programs support more than 15,000 students on scholarship, and award more than $300 million in full-tuition scholarships every year. After their commission, officers can also seek post-graduate degrees through fully funded advanced civil schooling programs. More than 40 percent of active Army officers currently hold a master’s degree or higher – compared to only 13 percent of the United States population.

Another way the military supports higher education for soldiers and veterans is the GI Bill. There are several versions, but the most frequently used is the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This scholarship covers 36 months of tuition and fees (typically four years of school); recipients are also entitled to a housing allowance, book and supply stipends, and money to help move from a rural area to attend school, when necessary. But the military doesn’t just lead to higher education for the service member alone. Since the inception of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, nearly 1.7 million family members have had their college education paid for as service members transfer their education benefits to a child or spouse.

While the Army’s mission is to deploy, fight, win, and return from our nation’s wars, this cannot be done without taking care of our people. Being a part of the military leads to one’s personal growth in many ways. Through required training, service members receive continual professional development throughout their career. When successful, they quickly move from being a member of a team to leading that team – earning valuable experience as the number under their charge grows.

Much like colleges that have leadership organizations for their best students, so does the military. One club in the Army, the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club (SAMC), is an elite organization of select noncommissioned officers who have demonstrated outstanding performance and inherent leadership qualities. In the SAMC, members receive opportunities to hone their leadership, applying their recognized skills by volunteering in their communities. These organizations give soldiers the opportunity to build stronger bonds with other high-performing soldiers.

Once a soldier decides to separate, their service in the military continues to benefit them. Department of Labor statistics continually show lower rates of unemployment for veterans; Pew research supports that finding – concluding that “households headed by veterans have higher incomes and are less likely to be in poverty, on average, and is especially the case for veterans in racial or ethnic minority groups and those with less education.” 

Success in life is more than money. Veterans can be found at the most senior levels of organizational leadership including serving as current and past CEOs for General Motors, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, FedEx, and McDonalds. One remarkable example is Robert Stevens, who decided to forego college initially to join the Marine Corps straight out of high school and ultimately became the chief executive of Lockheed Martin – currently number 57 on the Fortune 500.

Opportunities for students to excel after graduation are endless. Each pathway will look different, but it is important for counselors to understand that students shouldn’t be presented with the choice of college OR the military, when college AND the military has proven time and time again to chart a course for success for students and their families – while serving and beyond.