Finding the right school as a veteran can be challenging. Ideally, if it’s possible to start looking for a college before retirement or separation that is the best course of action. But that isn’t always possible and knowing where and how to start is just as important as the choices you make once you find a list of schools you want to review.
Timing Is Key
There are many resources available from state and federal governments that can help you locate a school or program. But one VERY important aspect of finding the right school? The timing of your application. For example, some graduate programs accept new applications only once per year. Here are some other things to consider:
- Some schools may allow you to take general classes while waiting to be approved into a specific program. Others may require you to start at a specific date with no ability to take other courses in your program. Some for-profit colleges who operate on a term system use this approach when offering degrees or certifications with few electives or alternative class options.
- Those who start the process close to the application deadlines for their selected colleges or institutions may experience a lot of frustration if they don’t know the deadlines for submitting or how often new applicants are reviewed for admission. It’s best to start hunting for potential schools as soon as you can and learn the application deadlines in a hurry.
- Some students are permitted to take summer classes, some are allowed to take higher-than-average course loads, and you may be required to do work-study or take on an assistantship. You could find opportunities to work for the school in some other capacity related to your course of study. But the availability of these options may depend on demand and it’s best to apply as early as possible for any exception to policy, competitive work/study or other options.
Use Diverse Search Tools
When searching for a school to attend as a veteran, you’ll likely use tools like the Department of Education College Scorecard or Department of VA education comparison tools. But don’t forget to review your state government’s official site for veteran-friendly college programs, financial aid, and other resources.
Your state-level Division of Veterans Affairs, state-level Department of Veterans Affairs or similar agency will have many location-specific school resources. You should also consider asking others in the field you wish to study what colleges in your area they might recommend as a local resident, if you know someone.
What To Do If Your Application Must Be Delayed
If you find a school you want to attend but you’ve missed their application deadline, be sure to ask what options are open to you to work on your degree in the meantime through taking general classes, independent study, etc.
Not all schools will let you take classes toward your degree without being accepted into a program, but you should ask in any case as you may be able to cut down your course load in the meantime.
When You Get Started
The first step toward making the most informed school choice you can? Knowing what your current education benefits will and will not cover. You should get very familiar with the GI Bill.
You should also plan on using the Department of Veterans Affairs official GI Bill Comparison tool which lets you learn about education programs that your GI Bill benefits will be accepted in and compare how far your benefits may go by school.
Another important area to consider when starting out is how traditionally you wish to pursue your higher education. In-person learning, virtual classrooms, and hybrid versions of both may be available but your GI Bill benefit payments will be affected by how much in-person learning you take on versus how much online coursework you get.
Decide as early as you can how you want to attend your classes and adjust your financial expectations accordingly.
Deciding On Some Specifics
You might not know the exact type of program you want to apply for, but narrowing down your areas of interest is key. For example, you might want to get an art degree from a state-funded university in your hometown.
But what kind of degree? Do you need an emphasis on teaching? Or are you more interested in hands-on studio work? Or do you want to learn how to run a museum or archive? All of these interests have their own degrees and you’ll want to decide how you want to study in addition to what.
An LPN may be in high demand, but an LPN specializing in at-home care may find their opportunities and requirements vastly different depending on the state laws which apply and other factors. These are considerations that are just as important as the school choice itself.
Finding The Right School As A Veteran
Before narrowing down more specific considerations, when looking at any institution of higher learning, ask yourself:
- Does the school offer special programs or help for veterans or do vets seem to be an afterthought? The lack of an office for veteran affairs such as GI Bill eligibility issues may be an important indicator in some cases.
- Is the school state-sponsored, private, or for-profit? For-profit colleges have GI Bill issues that may or may not be present in the institution you’re interested in but when looking at schools that are not state supported (and even for ones that are) you should assume you’ll need to research the reputation of the school, get information about student satisfaction, etc.
- Does the school have veteran-friendly add/drop policies? Are you given consideration for Guard or Reserve duty? What about ROTC participation? A veteran might not have ANY interest in ROTC for obvious reasons but if the school is mindful enough to post its policies in this area, it’s a good indication they may have other policies which DO affect the veteran population.
- Does the school participate in the Yellow Ribbon program or offer other perks to help veterans attend? What about offering in-state resident tuition to veterans for attendance?
It’s likely that most of the academic institutions you are likely to research when looking for the right school will be reputable and worth your time to review.
But some, especially certain colleges in the for-profit sector, do NOT operate with a veteran’s best interests in mind, but think of veterans more as a conduit for federal money. Here are a list of bewares to consider when hunting for a college program:
- Be wary of any school that asks you to commit same-day
- Don’t commit until you learn what credits you are given for past coursework, military experience, etc.
- Think twice about applying to any school that refuses to accept your military experience as some form of college credit
- Make sure you understand how the school is accredited and who accepts that accreditation for transfer to other programs if necessary
- Beware of any school with reps that pressure you to commit
- Ask early for an assessment of how much your education will cost at that school and how much of your benefits you will use there – don’t proceed without one
- Don’t sign any paperwork you haven’t read and fully understood
Mistakes New Veteran Students Sometimes Make
When searching for a school, don’t assume that private colleges and “aspirational” schools are out of your reach. You may find that some schools highly value their veteran communities and actively recruit vets to become students.
Some may have plans that can help offset the added expense of attending a private or for-profit school, and in areas where STEM programs are prized you may be offered additional incentives if your course of study is in a STEM area. State government programs aimed at veteran populations often reference these STEM initiatives–don’t overlook such opportunities!
Don’t assume your military experience won’t transfer as college credit unless the school tells you specifically what is accepted and what is not. It’s a mistake to think that only classroom experience will be viewed for college credit.
Your basic training experience may get you out of a fitness class requirement, or you might find that leadership school could qualify as a management course credit. It all depends on the school and what they are willing to accept–always ask and don’t count ANY military training or experience out of the running unless otherwise told by a school official that it won’t translate.
Finally, it pays to ask other veterans in your local area about the reputation of a given school. You may find good resources on social media, especially school alumni groups on Facebook and elsewhere.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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