6 Tips for Veterans Considering College
If you’re facing the transition back into the civilian world, or you know someone who is, you’ve probably been wondering if a college degree would be the right next step for you. It may be difficult to imagine sitting in a classroom after years on a battlefield, ship, or base, but the fact is that professionals with a college degree earn almost $1 million more over the life of their career than do their counterparts with just a high school degree. That fact, along with the numerous Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) benefits available to you, should have you seriously considering a next step into a university classroom.
Now the tricky part. You know what it takes to succeed in military life. You’re used to a regimented, directed world with clear expectations. Suddenly, you’re in a completely different environment of free choice – almost too much free choice. How can you ensure that you succeed and make the most of the continuing education benefits you’ve earned?
Here are six tips for veterans who’ve decided to go to – or return to – college.
- Ask yourself the right questions. The same report from Georgetown University noted above also found that choice of degree can make an even larger difference in earnings over a lifetime. While money isn’t everything, you should consider carefully your strengths and interests, and how the right major can help you make the best possible life for you and your family. Consider also the fact that some universities are more veteran-friendly than others.
Take some time to sit down and reflect on questions like:
- What are your interests and how do you want to make a living? If you’re not sure, you can explore career options with an online assessment tool.
- Is the school you are considering respected in the field of work you’d like to pursue?
- What types of degrees and majors does the school offer and does it match up with your career goals?
- What types of resources specific to veterans does the school offer (such as dedicated guidance counselors, credit transfers from your military service, special housing options, etc.)?
- What it the annual cost of tuition (and estimated cost of housing and books) and how does it compare the amount of funding you’re eligible for from the GI Bill based on your time in service?
Once you have the basic framework created, you can really begin to make a plan to reach your goals.
- Learn About Your Benefits. Veterans should not be shy about leveraging the government benefits available to them. Your service to our nation has earned these benefits and you should make the most of them. Whether it is the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the Yellow Ribbon Program (some institutions have agreements with the VA to agree to make additional funds available for your education program without an additional charge to your GI Bill entitlement), the government can help you make your continuing education more affordable. Keep in mind that there is typically a backlog of at least six months to a year in processing in the VA, so the sooner you can submit your paperwork the better.
- Seek out scholarships. You may also want to spend some time researching additional scholarships available to veterans, like the VeteransAid.org Veterans Benefit Scholarship that will award three $2,000 scholarships to college students based on their innovative ideas to improve the world of military veterans benefits. A quick search online for veteran scholarships will show a wide range of support available to veterans based on all sorts of factors, like branch of service, Purple Heart recipients, focus of study, and leadership skills. Even small scholarships can help make a difference in paying for your books or supplies, so apply for as many as you can.
- Prepare to interact with civilians who may think and act very differently. It’s true that going back to school will most likely put you in the classroom with students much younger than you. Unfortunately, many of them will not have had the life experiences and perspective you have had. They may be insensitive to the hardships suffered by veterans, or the ongoing struggles of transitioning back into civilian life. Even your professors may say things that are unintentionally offensive regarding war, the military, or global conflicts. Leaving the more unified community of the military will require you to have to “let things slide” at times, and remind yourself that others have not seen what you’ve seen. That said, if you can keep an open mind, you may also meet some very interesting people and even learn from other points of view. While they are numerous great institutions online that can help you achieve your degree, being in an actual physical classroom around other civilians may actually benefit your transition back into civilian life.
- Leverage Your Training. What some veterans might not realize is that some of their training in the service – like DD-214 credits – may actually transfer as college credits. Be sure to ask whoever is helping you register (usually someone in the registrar’s office) if this is possible. This can save you time and money in the long run. Even if you can’t count any of your training, however, remind yourself that your life experiences and the extensive amount of discipline and life skills you acquired during your service can really set you apart during your studies. It’s true that the type of learning you will be doing will be quite different than the hands-on work of military life, but it still takes focus, determination, and drive to excel. As a member of the Armed Forces, you should feel confident that you have what it takes to put the hard work in.
- Communicate and Connect. Once you begin your educational journey, be sure to communicate with your professors and support system. If you feel you are struggling, reach out and ask for assistance. Most professors are actually quite happy to help proactive, hardworking students who stay in close contact. Professors often are open to office hours to go over any questions you have, or if you need additional guidance. It’s also a good idea to reach out to your local veterans’ community on campus. With more and more veterans returning from war, there are typically numerous men and women just like you who can relate to what you are going through and can offer advice and support on the transition. Schools often also offer free counseling services, and if you are seriously struggling with other emotional issues, there is a confidential Veteran’s Crisis Hotline from the VA that may be valuable in helping understand and work through what you are experiencing.
Overall, remember that just like entering the military, beginning a new chapter of life in a college or university will come with a learning curve and some ups and downs. With every new skill you learn and every small success or even failure, you are growing and learning. A degree can be an excellent way to help you find your next career step and help your family by increasing your earning potential, so the hard work is definitely worth it. Lean on your support system, put your warrior work ethic into action, and have the confidence that you can and will find success.
Written by Megan Hammons