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American College Preps Veterans for Real World

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FRESH START: The director of the  Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs, Ted Digges is also a scholarship recipient.

It’s no accident that the official kickoff for Bryn Mawr’s Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs came on Sept. 11, 2011. Since 9/11, some 5 million Americans have served in the United States Armed Forces. For those expecting an honorable discharge within a year, one of the Main Line’s lesser-known academic assets has issued its own exit strategy: Be all you can be … in the financial services sector.

And military folks fit that particular sector quite well. Or, at least that’s the idea behind the scholarships offered by this unique start-up partnership between American College and Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company. “We’re talking about people who were willing to write a check to the U.S. government for an amount up to and including their lives,” says Jim Meehan, managing partner at 1847- Financial in Conshohocken, who serves on the PMCVA advisory board. “Then they leave the military, and they don’t know what to do.”

So far, there have been 47 scholarships awarded. Aside from those on active duty and honorably discharged within the past five years, disabled vets and any who’ve retired after 20-plus years can apply. Spouses, including those of fallen military personnel, also qualify. 

With an initial $2.5 million grant from Penn Mutual, the center was launched a little more than two years ago. Since then, donations from other financial organizations have followed. “They want vets to infuse the industry,” says retired U.S. Navy Capt. Ted Digges, the center’s director, explaining donors’ motivations. “Yes, it’s self-serving, but it’s a win-win. We’re a demographic that has higher unemployment than the national average, but we’re also helping the industry.”

And it’s an industry that craves an influx of new blood. Right now, the average financial adviser is a 57-year-old white male. “That’s a problem,” says Meehan. “This is a way to begin to make a change.”

Since 1927, the American College has been quietly prepping more than 150,000 students for careers in the insurance industry, banking, financial planning, employee benefits, healthcare and more. Some 30,000 are currently enrolled. All but one percent take classes off campus.

A former financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, Digges was hired a year ago this Veterans Day. Interestingly, he’s also one of the center’s active scholarship recipients. He likes to call American a “niche educational institution”—though that niche is vast. “We’re the 800-pound gorilla,” says Digges, who’s pursuing his certified financial planner designation. 

By 2012, the PMCVA was fully underway. Thus far, some $300,000 has been awarded—anywhere between $3,000 and $30,000 per student. 

Before 2013, eligible personnel could receive up to $4,500 in federal grants for expenses associated with college courses taken while off duty. But after sequestration (military speak for holding budgets at previous levels), funds were either suspended or reduced.

“The writing was on the wall when the cuts started,” says Anthony Boquet, a vice president at American and the PMCVA’s former executive director. “There’s such a high unemployment rate, especially among military personnel, that we felt obligated to do something about it.”

Ted Digges wasn’t exactly lacking in education when he applied for a PMCVA scholarship. He simply wanted more of it. 

A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Digges already holds master’s degrees in management, national security and international studies. He’s also an alumnus of the executive program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. 

As for Meehan, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1986 and served his five years before confronting a career crossroads. His specialty was aviation logistics, but a family friend encouraged him to branch out. The Newtown Square resident went back to American for his master’s in science and management.

Meehan would’ve been a prime candidate for a scholarship, had the PMCVA existed then. Now, he’s leading a company with more than 85 employees—and it’s growing by as many as 25 new hires a year, some of them veterans.

Digges’ roots are in Virginia. But after 27 years in the Navy, life on the road has become commonplace; he’s moved 17 times in 27 years. Now living in Norfolk, Digges commutes to Bryn Mawr at least once a month. “It’s important to get back,” he says. 

While on the road, Digges has been busy connecting with active service men and women, visiting different bases to recruit. “A lot of organizations are supporting vets,” he says. “What we’re doing is complementary.”

And instilling a work ethic is hardly ever a problem. “If you have all those soft skills from the service and you have the credentials in the financial services industry, you become a hot commodity,” Digges says.

The PMCVA would like to double scholarship numbers in 2014, and then double them again. “The funds are in place; we just need to prime the pump,” says Digges, who’s holding the center’s first fundraiser in August, a clambake in Lake Geneva, Wis. “We have to get to the bases and develop relationships with the key gatekeepers.”

And while the center may indeed be self-serving, it brings self-sufficiency to those it serves. “Our services are needed now more than ever,” says Meehan.

To learn more about the PMCVA, visit www.theamericancollege.edu/pmcva

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