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How to Navigate the Transition Back to College as a Veteran

How to Navigate the Transition Back to College as a Veteran

About 5 percent of current college students are veterans. If you’re considering joining their ranks, you should know that the right college for veterans can shape a brighter, more meaningful future and permanently increase your earning potential. Yet many veterans find the transition to college daunting and worry that they will be poorly equipped for higher learning. You may be recovering from physical injuries and psychological trauma, or feel adrift without the military giving shape and purpose to your life. Perhaps you worry that you won’t understand other students, or they won’t understand you. 

These concerns are valid. The truth, though, is that college equips you with both the hard and soft skills you need to transition out of the military and into a rewarding civilian existence. Though school can be tough at first, it offers one of the best and clearest paths out of life as a soldier. As you weigh your options and embark on the journey toward a new future, these strategies can help you navigate the transition. 

Know the Value of Going Back to School 

More than a million GI Bill® beneficiaries are enrolled in college. Yet many struggle to graduate. Most people have heard that college is a good investment. Some even attend college because they don’t know what to do next or worry that it’s the only way to have a good life. Don’t enroll until you know why you want to go to school. The right motivations can keep you moving forward and working hard when classes are difficult or life gets in the way. 

Some of the benefits of going to college or completing the degree you started before you joined the military include: 

  • Higher earnings. College graduates boast median weekly earnings of $1,198, compared to $730 for those with only a highschool diploma and $802 for those who did not finish their bachelor’s degree. 
  • Lower unemployment. Unemployment rates for college graduates plummet to 2.2 percent, compared to 4.1 percent for high school graduates. 
  • More career opportunities. Employers increasingly want to hire college graduates. In 2018, nine out of 10 new jobs required a college degree. Georgetown University's public policy institute predicts that at least 35 percent of jobs in the coming years will require a degree. Even if you already have a good job, a degree can lift promotional ceilings or help you campaign for a raise. 

Depending upon your circumstances, college may offer even more benefits. The key here is to identify what drives you. Consider writing down your specific reasons for attending college, so that you can remind yourself of your goals when things get tough. For example, you might want to move to a new neighborhood with your family, go to graduate school to become a counselor who supports other veterans, or just make sure you get credit for the skills you mastered as a soldier. 

Do you know all the education benefits that are available to you as a veteran?  Our free e-book,Using Your VA Benefits for Education, has all the answers!

Find the Right College for Veterans 

One of the challenges veterans face is that, though they learned plenty in the military, the civilian world may not recognize that mastery. Indeed, one of the best reasons to attend college is that it may be the only way to get employers to acknowledge the skills you already have. 

After spending time in a combat zone, leading a team, and doing challenging, fulfilling work that keeps our nation safe, returning to a classroom can feel strange—perhaps even like a step down. Colleges that cater to veterans understand this frustration. Not only do they support you through navigating the transition, but they also treat you like the accomplished, intelligent person you already are.

SNU’s VETS Center helps you every step of the way, drawing on the lived experience of our caring staff of veterans. We are one of just 13 schools designated as Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success. We are consistently honored as a Military Friendly School

Some questions you can ask a potential school to assess whether they fully support veterans include: 

  • How many veteran students do you have? 
  • What is your veteran graduation rate?
  • What does your school do to help veterans graduate?
  • Do you offer additional support to veterans? 
  • Can you help me explore my VA benefits? 
  • Is it possible for me to get prior learning credit for the skills I mastered in the military? 

Explore VA Benefits and Other Financial Aid Options

For many veterans, college attendance costs are overwhelming. It’s not just tuition. You’ll also have to worry about childcare for when you attend classes, housing expenses, lost earnings when you take time off of work to go to school, books, fees, and the technology you need to succeed. Yet many veterans can get enough financial aid to pay for a significant portion of their attendance costs and sometimes even everything. 

Your primary financial aid options break down into two categories: 

  • VA benefits. Depending on when you served and how long you served, you may be eligible for significant funding to cover your college expenses. The Post-9/11 GI Bill® offers tuition assistance, as well as support for some other college costs. 
  • Federal student aid. Completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid takes just a few minutes. You may be eligible for loans, including federally subsidized options that pay your interest while you attend school. You might also get grants, scholarships, and other forms of assistance. 

Veterans can stack benefits. This means you can use your VA benefits to fund many college costs, and then apply for loans and grants to fund anything that’s left. SNU understands that applying for benefits and assessing which package is right for you can be tricky. That’s why we offer assistance completing financial aid paperwork. We’ll also work with you to assess whether loans are right for you and how much debt you can afford to take on. 

Know How to Successfully Transition Back to School 

For some soldiers, getting funding and applying to school are the easy parts. The real obstacle is navigating the rocky transition to civilian life—especially in a high-stakes academic setting. These strategies can help make things a bit easier: 

  • Get the healthcare you need. If you struggle with trauma, anxiety, depression, PTSD, or anger, get the right mental health treatment. This can make it easier to manage your coursework and to ask for help when you need it. If you have old injuries or chronic pain, work with a physician to develop a treatment plan that makes life less painful. 
  • Find a mentor. A fellow soldier who has successfully attended college and transitioned to civilian life can offer hope, inspiration, and practice wisdom. SNU’s VETS Center is always here for you. 
  • Take it one day at a time. Rather than focusing on the many obstacles that lie ahead, focus on what you need to do today. Break big tasks into smaller chunks. Then build upon these successes. 
  • Ask for help early. If you run into trouble—whether it’s a challenging class, a missed deadline, or increasing depression—don’t delay seeking help. Small challenges can spiral, becoming progressively more daunting the longer you delay getting support. 
  • Consider online learning. For veterans with social anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health challenges, online learning may lower stress. Online degree programs also work well for students with families, jobs, and busy lives. Studying online can allow you to learn on your time while still getting guidance from expert professors. 

Make the Most of Your Time in College 

Although college can open new doors for most graduates, those who make the most of their educational experience stand to benefit the most. Try these strategies: 

  • Get to know other students. These peers will one day be your professional network. Your classmates also offer a great chance to practice soft skills, like public speaking. SNU’s cohort model helps you truly get to know fellow learners, enabling you to learn from and support one another. 
  • Earn exceptional grades. High grades can open doors to new opportunities, such as competitive graduate school programs or selective employers. 
  • Take advantage of campus resources. If you need academic assistance, support to navigate your return to civilian life, or help getting a job, ask for aid rather than going it alone. And before you apply to a school, make sure it offers plenty of assistance to students who seek it. 

SNU is proud to serve the men and women who selflessly gave so much to our country. To help you get started on your journey back to school, be sure to read our guide Using Your VA Benefits for Education to ensure you are taking advantage of all the financial aid options that are available to you. 

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at

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