Military spouses are sometimes unfairly stereotyped as “married” to the military—and taking a backseat to the demands of the mission and combat readiness. It’s true: in many cases, they shoulder added responsibilities with child care, household finances, and more regardless of whether their service members are home or deployed.. They often must pause—or sacrifice completely—their career and educational aspirations to support their service member’s partner’s military career. Often, they pack up and move every one to three years — to a new military installation, a new community of other military spouses, sometimes even a new part of the world.
But what if there was a more positive lens through which to view military spouses, one that focused less on their limitations and more on their potential? The reality is that “milspouses” are a vibrant, entrepreneurial, and underappreciated community full of knowledge and experience who could use more support to achieve their personal education and career goals. These skills and characteristics are ideal for colleges and universities.
The community of military spouses is significant, and, in some ways, hiding in plain sight. There are nearly 600,000 milspouses — more than twice the population of the entire University of California system — married to active-duty service members.
Because military families move 10 times more often than their civilian counterparts, many milspouses have gaps in their employment history or run into obstacles with continuing their higher education.
Employment represents a challenge for milspouses, especially because many want to work — or have to work — to supplement their service member’s military pay. About 20% of active-duty military spouses are unemployed — a rate that’s four to six times higher than the general population. More than 60% of working military spouses are underemployed, either because they are overqualified for their current job, work fewer hours than they want, or are paid less than they should despite their work history or level of education. Roughly 4 out of 10 military spouses aren’t in the workforce at all.
The length and unpredictability of their service member’s daily schedule often combine to make it difficult for milspouses to balance the twin demands of home and work. A third, meanwhile, say the ever-rising cost of childcare is keeping them from looking for work, while a quarter said they’ve been out of the workforce for so long that they’re not sure how to find meaningful employment. Frequent moves across the country and around the world to new military installations in remote areas also contribute to the limited opportunities to sustain a career.
About a third of milspouses are employed in a field that requires state licensure, such as teaching or nursing, but only 10% acquired a new license or credential after a permanent change of station (PCS) because of the time, expense, and complexity involved. It’s no wonder that a recent survey found the top issue affecting active-duty military families — more than pay or constant relocations — is employment of the spouse.
Despite these barriers, military spouses are a deep well of untapped talent who want better lives for themselves and their children. More than 80 percent have attended college — a rate that’s much higher than the population at large. A quarter hold bachelor’s degrees. Roughly half have earned some college credit during their lifetimes, however, many still face challenges with completing their career and educational goals.
During the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw many military spouses use scholarships and military benefits to return to school and attain their higher education goals. Now they’re getting remote jobs that they’re able to keep even as they PCS and move yet again.
To support military spouses in their quest to get the job training or education credentials they need, higher education institutions can make education more affordable for military spouses by offering tuition discounts, in-state tuition rates, or even waiving tuition altogether. Flexible, online programs can help military spouses remain with one college or university, rather than resorting to the sometimes unnecessary transfer of credits.
Recently, my employer asked me how best to support and serve the military spouse community, I replied: “Hire them.” As a result, National University launched an Ambassador Program and is committed to hiring at least 15 military spouses for remote positions in multiple departments across the organization, tapping into the knowledge and experience that military spouses bring to the table. This commitment will provide milspouses the opportunity to keep their position when their spouse receives military orders to relocate.
Changes in public policy can also help unlock opportunities for military spouses. If passed, a new bipartisan bill could change the federal tax code to give incentives to businesses actively hiring military spouses, similarly to the tax credit offered for hiring a Veteran. As Congress considers changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, including expanding eligibility to National Guard and Reserve members, lawmakers can also take steps to expand access to these educational benefits for children and spouses of service members.
New remote opportunities that came as a result of the pandemic have opened additional professional and educational pathways for military spouses, whose schooling and career are no longer limited by proximity. Colleges and universities are perfectly positioned to drastically impact the unemployment and underemployment numbers in the military spouse community through successful and transportable careers.
Danielle Maloy is director of Military and VA Relations at National University