As more veterans and active-duty soldiers enroll in college, both online and otherwise, they need to navigate different issues than do traditional students. This can seem daunting to some veterans or active-duty soldiers who are interested in pursuing higher education, but to Paul Szoldra, a Marine veteran who created the college advising website CollegeVeteran.com, these fears are unfounded. He told USNews that,
“Some military members think that they just can’t deal with the pressure of going to class and taking tests and stuff like that, and I think that’s totally wrong and needs to be flipped on its head. Being in the military gives you so much more insight to dealing with stress and being able to solve complex problems. We’re more successful [in college] because we’re much more mature.”
But that optimism doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific challenges that may, from time-to-time, seem insurmountable – after all, the transition from military to civilian life has always been fraught with difficult adjustments. It’s no surprise that changing course and moving into higher education might not always be the easiest transition, either. In fact, Szoldra also pointed out that “adapting from getting hands-on, in-the-moment training to completing reading assignments, written essays, and final exams can serve as a mental roadblock, too.”
Luckily, there are many steps that military students (active duty or veterans) can take to ensure that they succeed in their education plans. These five tips might help you manage the transition to college and make sure that your path is as easy as possible:
- Enroll in a Military-Friendly School: While virtually all colleges have specific programs designed to assist military students in making the transition to college, some schools have dedicated more services than others. The amount of federal money used to support higher education for veterans and active-duty servicemembers also means that there is the potential for fraud. Former marine Sean Collins, the vice-president of Victory Media, pointed out recently that, “Unfortunately, whenever government benefits are entered into any market, you get people that move in and try to be opportunistic.” That’s why Victory Media created MilitaryFriendlySchools.com, which offers an annual list of Veteran’s Administration-approved colleges and universities that provide the kind of support and unique services that veterans and active-duty servicemembers need, including expertise in dealing with the G.I. Bill and other forms of financial aid, flexible scheduling and students support services. Their list is survey-driven, but is also verified by an outside source. As Collins explained, “We want to make sure we are differentiated from anyone who’s new in this space and make sure our resources are world class.” Check out the 2013 list to find the right military-friendly college for you.
- Arrange for a Stand-In: According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the only person a college or university can release information to regarding an individual student’s schoolwork, grades, enrollment status, financial aid information, etc. is the student. For example, every time a parent calls or emails me about their son or daughter’s performance in my college courses – a parental practice more and more common in the era of helicopter parenting – I have to tell them that I am federally barred from speaking to them. For active-duty military students, this can be complicated, especially if he or she is deployed. To avoid delays in admissions, enrollment, and financial aid disbursement, it’s a good idea to submit a written FERPA release form, designating someone to act on your behalf in these matters. In fact, it’s a good idea in general for all members of the military to have a Power of Attorney (POA) on file, in the case of deployment, injury, or other events. Your base’s legal services department can help you complete this.
- Check Your Tech: It has become very common for deployed soldiers to work on their college degrees wherever they are stationed. For example, at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, the army has established an Education Center with eight staff members to assist soldiers who use their off-duty time to complete online college courses. This may not be the case at every military station, so as every Boy Scout, Girl Scout, and soldier knows, half of success is in the preparation. Before you enroll in any college program, but especially an online program, verify the technical services that will be available to you where you are stationed. For example, military computers often have firewalls for security reasons, and they might prevent you from accessing the sites you need for your course. Find out what’s available to you before you embark on a new educational program.
- Know Before You Owe: All students struggle to figure out how to pay for college, but military students also have a number of financial aid benefits that complicate the process. There’s a lot to learn and manage. Because of this, the potential for confusion and mistakes is real. In addition, last week I wrote about new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) report detailing the problems military students have had in acquiring accurate and thorough information about their benefits. Many students have ended up with serious financial emergencies because of that. That’s why the CFPB is working with the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) to ensure that all students, including military students, have access to all the information they need to make good financial decisions about their higher education. Use their “Know Before You Owe” worksheet to help with this.
- Get Psychological/Emotional Support: As I’ve written about in the past, I’ve had students in my classes who have enrolled in college right out of service-with some very upsetting results. In my History courses, war is a frequent topic, and at least twice the material we’ve covered has upset the veterans in class, who succumbed to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and dropped out of college altogether. Though it can be difficult to make time to take care of your emotional and psychological needs, you need to make sure you line up the appropriate resources and support networks so that you can continue your education. Look for military support groups on campus, explain to your professors if you have trouble handling certain course materials, take advantage of the free counseling services offered at most colleges, etc. You may think that you are fine, but sometimes just a small emotional jolt can turn into something that will derail your progress.
Military students are in many ways just like every other student struggling to pay for and complete a college degree. But they do have special needs, especially if they are on active duty. If you are a military student, the steps I’ve outlined above can help make sure you take care for yourself and your needs so that you can better complete your education.