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Marketing to Military Personnel as Non-Traditional Students

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Active service members are an important audience among nontraditional students in higher education marketing. While all branches of the military offer financial assistance, it’s important to understand the nuances of each program. Effective active duty marketing requires an understanding of the best recruitment tactics.

In this podcast, we’re joined by Ali-Reza Rajabzadeh, Area Coordinator of Troy University, for a conversational overview on the facts, methods, and logistics of active service member recruitment.

Read the transcription below

Christoph Trappe: Hello everyone. This is Christoph Trappe with another episode of our Stamats podcasts. And today, I’m actually joined by Ali-Reza Rajabzadeh. He is the area coordinator at Troy University. Thanks for joining us today.

Ali-Reza Rajabzadeh: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Christoph: So, today’s topic again, we’re still focusing on topics that will be covered at the Adult Student Marketing Conference, which of course is in San Diego in February. And Ali’s topic is about non-traditional students that come from the military. Correct?

Non-traditional, Military Students

Ali-Reza: Yes, that is correct. It’s going to be our active duty military reserves and our guards, and also veterans.

Christoph: And what, so this is a topic that wasn’t even top of mind for me at all and of course, Veteran’s Day was just not too long behind us here. And I was actually at an NFL game, saw some of those tributes and soldiers returning, and meeting their family and all those things. But how about active military personnel coming back and then going to school? What’s the typical scenario? Or is there a typical scenario?

Ali-Reza: Yeah. There is a typical scenario and it’s kind of funny, I was one. I was a veteran, or I was in the active duty Air Force. And when I got out, I had to return to school and believe it or not, I didn’t know anything about school. And most of the enlisted side of the house does not know a lot about what it takes to go to school. Because a lot of these guys are joining when they’re 18 years old, right out of high school, like myself. And they are launched into a career.

So, some of the most very important things to do when they get out, they’re usually around 21, 22 years old, so they are definitely non-traditional students.

Christoph: So, the age range is typically, what’s the age range that we’re looking at?

Ali-Reza: Well, they join at 18 and then they either do a four-year commitment or a six-year commitment. And so, once they’re out, you’re looking at a 22-year-old adult that knows nothing about school.

And if they stay the whole career, they might take one or two classes for professional development while they’re in, but if they do the whole 20, they’re looking at a 38-year-old veteran getting out and now they’re starting life over again.

Christoph: And then how do you get that path for a non-traditional student, how do you get that on their radar? Is that – as you said, they’re coming out of the military and they haven’t experienced that part of life. How do you even raise that awareness?

How You Raise Awareness

Ali-Reza: One thing, everybody today is military-friendly. All the schools are. They’ve kind of taken that and turned that into an ad campaign I would say. But the best way to do it is you have to be able to let them know what type of support you have on campus for that military student. Whether it’s an online support center, whether it’s – I know when I was working at Texas A&M, San Antonio, we had what we called the “Patriot’s Casa.”

And what that was, was an actual center for our military students where had counseling, we had help with how to do your FAFSA. We had a Military Affairs Support Center where they come in and they start their GI Bill benefits. They get certified and they meet with the counselors so that they know what courses to take, what degree plan they need to get into. And then also, the additional support that goes on through educating the staff. That’s a big thing.

Because a lot of – not only is the non-traditional, military student coming in unaware of what to do, but the staff is unaware for the most part on what that military students needs or may be experiencing.

Christoph: Do you have any examples that you can share?

What Sets Them Apart

Ali-Reza: Oh yeah. With our military students for example, some of them that are coming back from Iraq, Afghanistan, they suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. And large classes are triggers for them. Crowds, that’s another thing that can be very stressful for them. That’s why some of them prefer to go online.

One of the bigger things is they’ll come into a room and they’ll want to sit as close to an exit as possible. And especially in a large room, and it’s not that student doesn’t want to be engaged or doesn’t want to pay attention in class, it’s this is how they’ve been trained, you know, to come in, assess the situation, identify the exits, and know how to get out of a situation in case something goes bad.

Christoph: And those are things many other students of course, they wouldn’t even think about, right, for the most part.

Ali-Reza: Right. Exactly. Our military members, they’re trained differently. So, especially, you know, the 22-year-old first time college student from the military is not going to think the same way the 22-year-old college student that just transferred over from the community college or is in their final year of school.

Christoph: And you know, so I was actually at an NFL game on Veteran’s Day this year in Tampa Bay. And at one point they said, “Could everybody who has served in the military stand up?” And it was just a tremendous amount of people who were around me, who were standing up. And I mean I couldn’t tell you for the whole stadium. So, there is a pretty big pool of people who are serving or have served in the military of course. And then, I assume also a relatively good-sized pools would want to go to a college. Is that correct or no?

Ali-Reza: Right. Oh yeah. Definitely. A lot of our military students, especially the ones that are still on active duty, one of the things as they progress in rank, professional development which includes going back to school and earning a degree, whether it be an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s, is actually encouraged now. Where before, it wasn’t really that encouraged. Before you would hear if the military wanted you to have a degree, they would issue you one.

So, now the military sees the benefit of having an educated airman, soldier, Marine or a seaman. And they understand that as they move up in rank, the more educated they are, the better they develop professionally.

Best Ways to Reach Military Students

Christoph: And what is the – I know in your talk at the Adult Student Marketing Conference in San Diego, you will talk about how to reach influencers, right, for the subset of non-traditional students. What are some of the best ways to reach non-traditional students who are serving in the military?

Ali-Reza: Now, with our non-traditional students that are serving, everything goes through the education service officer or the Education Center. So, in order to really get on a base or post to be able to reach these students, you have to be able – they have literally cracked down on these schools like the for-profit that are just out there to get the money I guess you would say. And so, you have to be vetted through the education service officer before they let you on post.

And part of that is a lot of times a lot of schools will get invited to come out to education fairs. Showing up is half the battle, you know? Showing up, making sure that you take care of that military student when you do have them – our office has gotten tons of referrals just from other students that we’ve recruited, and we’ve taken care of.

So, word of mouth is another big thing. Luckily, my Support Center is located in San Antonio, Texas. And we have four large bases within our area. So, we get military students just walking in sometimes, you know, wanting to go back to school, calling us. But for those who are a little bit farther away, you want to make sure that you have that support that they need, and you go through the education service officer and follow the guidelines that the service officer puts in place so that you don’t get banned from base as well.

Christoph: Oh, the ban – that would be the education marketers, right? Is that what we’re referring to?

Ali-Reza: Education Service Office.

Christoph: Got it.

Ali-Reza: They call them the ESO. And so, the ESO kind of holds all of the power on who gets to come onto base and recruit.

Christoph: Okay. Yep. Got it. All right, what are some other things that we need to think about for the recruitment of these kind of non-traditional student? I mean how else do we reach them?

Ali-Reza: Other ways you can go out and reach them, we do a lot of military events. For example, we help the minor league baseball team in San Antonio, we actually sponsor the military dollar night. So, we pay the remainder portion of the ticket and all they have to come in there and pay is $1 for them and their families.

We also go to military events that are hosted around the city. The city does a lot to salute our veterans, salute the military events. We take part and sponsor those events as well. I’m also on the Military Affairs Committee for Kendall County. So, these are ways that you can go out and help and work with our military members rather then just trying to get on base and picking them up.

Christoph: Okay. Great.

Ali-Reza: And community, that’s…

Popular Academic Programs for Military Personnel

Christoph: Yep. And are there any specific areas of studies that active military personnel go after more than others? I mean any kind of areas…

Ali-Reza: Yeah. Definitely. For us, our top three master programs that they go after are our master’s in business administration, our international relations and our master’s in public administration. Our undergrads, we have a lot of criminal justice, social work and business.

Christoph: Interesting. So, like criminal justice, then typically they end up going in law enforcement or something like that?

Ali-Reza: Yeah. Law enforcement or they go to the federal side of the house and do cyber security or national security affairs.

Financial Assistance

Christoph: What – I know you will talk a little bit about financial assistance in your Adult Student Marketing talk. What are some of the specifics there for marketers to keep top of mind?

Ali-Reza: With financial assistance, there’s different types of programs that are available. There is the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which for the most part, all veterans have now. Or all military people. And those are for our non-active duty. That our active duty personnel have what they call tuition assistance.

And tuition assistance will pay a total up to $250/credit hour per course. So, one of the things that you definitely want to make sure that you are willing to meet that $250/credit hour and accept it.

A lot of schools, what they’re doing is they’re bringing down their cost of tuition for military members. And they bring it down to $250/credit hour, so that the student doesn’t pay out of pocket. And those are big things.

Now, also they can file for financial aid and FAFSA. And a lot of them don’t know how to do that. So, the more you can educate them and help them understand FAFSA and financial aid, the better chance that you have of actually getting them on to your program.

Christoph: Great. Well, we’re looking forward to having you in San Diego in a few months here. Is there anything else you want to share with the listeners on your topic? On the conference? And anything else that we haven’t discussed?

Don’t Forget the Military Spouse and Children

Ali-Reza: One of the things that a lot of people forget when we deal with our military dependents – or our military families is we forget the spouse and we forget the children. And one of the biggest things that we kind of preach is it’s the military community, you know? Keep that in mind. Keep the children, the spouse in mind because they also receive benefits from the VA depending on the disability rating of that member.

So, we have to make sure that: 1.) We have a strong Student Veteran Association on campus. 2.) Make sure we let the spouse and the dependents know they can be a part of that as well. And that they’re welcomed on campus.

Those are big things, big issues that we hear time and time again that they feel forgotten. They shouldn’t be because especially the spouses, their job doubles when our men and women deploy. You know? Because now they’re both Mom and Dad, you know, and they have to do a lot more than what we have to do and they’re worrying about their loved one. So, my biggest thing is let’s try to keep them in mind.

Christoph: Yes. That’s a very good point and very easy to forget, certainly. When these non-traditional students go to college class, do their classmates typically know that they’re veterans? There’s an age difference, but it’s not – it’s only a couple years, right? Four years, maybe, six.

Ali-Reza: Sometimes. I know when I returned to school, I was 28. And there was another veteran in the class and he was 38. So, I knew he was a veteran because I could pick him out, but for the most part, unless we kind of bring it up and self-identify, most students don’t know. They just view us as an older student returning to school.

Christoph: On one of the other episodes – go ahead.

Ali-Reza: And sometimes, it can be frustrating because we’re older and here we are sitting in a class of youngsters and, you know, they think they know everything, but we’ve seen other aspects of life, you know?

Military Student’s Return on Investment

Christoph: Yeah. Very different aspects, personally. So, one of the other episodes of our podcasts, we were talking about the ROI of going to school as a non-traditional student. Do the service men and women, do they think about that, the ROI? Do they weigh that? Is that something marketers should think about in their marketing message?

Ali-Reza: Yeah. The return on investment, definitely. One of the things that – and this is a big concern with a lot of veterans is they get out or they retire and they have a ton of experience, but they don’t have the degree to solidify anything. So, it’s kind of the opposite of somebody who goes in traditional and they have the degree, but they don’t have the experience.

So, the return on investment is huge, especially for that young man or woman that’s getting out, they’re getting ready to start a second career. I think if we can emphasize how much a degree can help your earnings, it’s a good way to recruit our military members as well.

Christoph: Great. Well, if you want to hear more from Ali, if you will be at the Adult Student Marketing Conference as we mentioned in San Diego, of course, the signup link is on Stamats.com. Unless we have any final words, those are all the questions I have.

Ali-Reza: No. That’s it. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. And I look forward to meeting you guys in San Diego.

Christoph: You bet. We’re happy to have you and thank you for the insight ahead of the event.

(Transcription by Katie Downing)

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