The former petty officer second class had a wife and an infant son dependent on him, and those biweekly paychecks would disappear if he opted for school instead of the workforce.
He was also unsure of how he'd do in the classroom. He joined the Navy in 2006, after starting college, having "way too much fun" and not finishing. He also worried that he would compare poorly to fellow students with years of experience in business.
Still, he set his concerns aside and took the plunge.
He wrapped up his undergraduate degree soon after separating from the Navy and settled on Texas A&M University for his Master of Business Administration.
A little more than six months into the program, Harthcock said, the experience has been better than he expected. The generous education benefits afforded to veterans have minimized the financial strain, and despite his lack of formal training in finance or accounting, he has not felt left behind in the classroom.
"A&M puts a real emphasis on leadership, and in every class there's a leadership portion tied in," Harthcock said. "Even though I wasn't too familiar with the material ... I was still able to contribute, and my opinion was valued."
Mary Lea McAnally, associate dean for graduate programs at A&M's Mays Business School, stressed that for veterans, who are already well schooled in leadership, "this transition is not going to be as hard as you think."
"What they've done in the military is so applicable to business school — and business when they graduate," she said.
McAnally's school snagged the fifth spot in our Best for Vets: Business Schools 2015 rankings. Rounding out the top five were the business schools of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Syracuse University, Eastern Kentucky University and Northern Arizona University.
Some of the findings from our survey:
- Among respondents this year, the focus on veterans typically starts at the top. Better than four in 10 have a service member, veteran or military spouse in a senior leadership position within the business school. Another four in 10 reported such a senior leader not at the business school but the larger university.
- On average, service members and veterans accounted for a little less than 13 percent of the graduate student population at business schools.
- A graduate degree is typically more expensive than a bachelor's, and the MBA is no exception. More than 8 in 10 responding schools indicated that their costs exceeded the $250-per-semester-hour cap associated with military tuition assistance in the last school year.
- Costs at a little more than half the schools outpaced veterans' Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. But about 7 in 10 such schools participated in the Yellow Ribbon program to help make up the difference, and most — but not all — of these schools made up the full difference for all eligible students, thus insuring they didn't have to pay tuition out of pocket or through loans.
- More than a third of schools either waive or discount application fees for veterans or service members.
- Three-quarters of business schools told us that their larger university has a veteran or military group, but fewer than one in 10 has a separate such group unique to the business school.
- Nearly six in 10 graduate business programs accept, in at least some cases, recommendations from the American Council on Education on awarding academic credit for military training. But limitations on the acceptance of such credit are common.
- Nearly two-thirds of responding schools require incoming students to take either the Graduate Management Admission Test or the Graduate Record Examination as part of their applications. Only about 8 percent of schools typically waive that requirement for vets, although about a quarter of schools gave vets some sort of admissions preference.
"They're almost the ideal kinds of students, because ... our best students are the ones that come to us with significant experience," said Louis Pol, dean of the University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Business Administration. "They come to us, they get a business perspective, and they go out, and they tend to be very successful."
Texas A&M's McAnally echoed that view, and she said for that reason, the school has set "hard targets" for the number of veterans that should be recruited in every class.
"The employers want it," she said. "I've got demand for them."
McAnally and others said that what service members learn in the military, both the practical technical skills and the leadership skills, are very important in the business world. The MBA can teach vets how to apply those skills in a civilian context.
But for veterans, who are often older than nonvet students and more likely to have families and full-time jobs, working school into their schedules can be a challenge.
Syracuse University's Martin J. Whitman School of Management recently adopted a new approach to this old problem. The MBA@Syracuse program is an online degree that works more like a traditional MBA that a student would earn on campus.
Amy McHale, the school's assistant dean for master's programs, said students spend about half of their time working with pre-recorded — but often still interactive — material. The other half of the time, students and the professor discuss the lessons live, via webcam, in large, interactive forums, where everyone can see everyone else.
"Think of the Brady Bunch," McHale said, referencing the show's iconic opening credits. "I think the student experience is greatly enhanced."
Air Force veteran Dave Bauer, a student in the program's inaugural class, agrees. Bauer said he earned his undergraduate degree online at a different school and graduated without getting to know a single classmate — an experience he did not want to repeat.
"My expectations have been exceeded in the format," he said. "It makes it a heck of a lot more effective than, you know, just logging in as a faceless person in class and posting."
Students and school leaders alike stressed the importance of interaction both inside and outside of the classroom.
Laurie Jordon, coordinator for the Franke College of Business Veteran Student Center at Northern Arizona University, said she often hears from students who regret not getting involved with the vet center sooner.
"It's amazing what that social connection can provide you, and also just the many programs and resources that we can provide that you just may not know are available," she said. "You'll get some of that sense of cameraderie back, I think, that may have been lost from [leaving] the military."
Her advice for vets considering whether to pursue an MBA, and at what school, is something people inside and outside of the military have been telling troops for years:
"Do your research."