Thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other benefits, many veterans return to college after leaving the service. In 2017, 28 percent of all veterans over the age of 25 had completed some type of postsecondary degree or credential.
Obtaining a college degree boosts your earning potential, opens new career doors, and reduces your chance of unemployment. Though you have mastered a wide range of skills in the military, employers may not notice or understand these skills without a degree. So capitalize on your experience by using your benefits to get a degree.
Here are the key questions soldiers should ask before making the journey back to school.
What does my ideal future look like?
Before rushing into a degree program, consider how you want to spend the next few years of your life. Some questions that can help guide your decision include:
- Were there any military activities in which I excelled? Do any of these pursuits translate into civilian careers?
- What do I like doing best?
- What work setting is right for me? Do I prefer office work or physical labor? Do I need a routine or lots of variety? Do I prefer working independently or with others?
- What about my current job do I like most? Least?
- How much do I need to make to support my current lifestyle? Do I need to make more to achieve my lifestyle goals for the future?
- Have I taken college classes before? What did I like most and least?
What degree program best fits my goals?
Armed with a list of your goals and interests, you can begin researching potential careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great resource for learning the basics. Some areas to focus on include:
- The median earnings for a given role, as well as the lower and higher end of potential earnings. If the floor on earnings is very low or there is significant salary variability, this presents greater risk.
- The amount of training necessary, as well as whether you need a specific degree. You can pursue a wide range of degrees before entering sales, but if you want to be a nurse, you need a nursing degree.
- Whether the number of available jobs is growing or contracting.
It’s also very helpful to connect with people who already work in the job you are considering. Sometimes the fantasy of a particular career is very different from reality. Real-life experiences from those you trust can help you make an informed decision and pursue educational paths that set you up for success.
You can also narrow down your future prospects to a few possibilities. One strategy is to simultaneously seek out a few related careers that require progressively more education. For example, if you’re interested in the law, you might ultimately hope to graduate law school and become an attorney. Pursuing work as a paralegal or getting a degree in criminal justice might be your first steps toward this goal.
How can I fit going back to school into my life?
Investing in your future is important. You also need to ensure you can remain happy, healthy, and functional in the present moment. For many soldiers going back to school, it’s not realistic to enroll in a traditional college and spend most of the day in class. You might need to take just one class at a time, work night classes into your schedule, or consider online-only coursework.
Some questions to ask about various college programs include:
- Is it possible to take a reduced course load or just one class at a time?
- Can I take online classes?
- Are classes available on the evenings or weekends?
- How long do I have to wait to enroll? Does the school accept applications on a rolling basis?
It’s not enough just to choose a program that easily integrates into your life, though. You need to balance a manageable courseload with the need to choose a rigorous program that employers respect. These questions can help you choose a degree that will propel your career to impressive heights:
- Who teaches the classes? Are they qualified professors or experts in the field?
- Does the school partner with any companies to help students get jobs or internships?
- What percentage of students are employed six months after graduation? What is their average salary?
- What percentage of students successfully graduate?
- What specific classes will I take, and do the course syllabi reveal rich programs that train me for the real world?
- Is the school regionally accredited? Do other schools accept transfer credits from this school?
- What is the school’s reputation? What do other students say about their experiences?
- Does the Department of Education offer loans and grants to attend this school?
What will my VA benefits cover?
Understanding your VA benefits can be challenging, especially if you are eligible for several programs. Schools that cater to veterans offer specialized help to understand what expenses are covered and whether you’re eligible for various forms of veterans assistance.
Depending on the programs you are eligible for and the school you attend, you may be able to get help with costs such as:
- Tuition and fees
- Moving to attend school if there is not a school near your home
- Living expenses, such as housing
- School-related costs, such as supplies and books
- Retraining through a vocational program
You can check your eligibility for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits on the Department of Veterans Affairs website. You may also be eligible for mental health assistance programs, disability benefits, and housing assistance in addition to your student benefits. Veterans can also combine Department of Education benefits, such as loans and grants, so be sure to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Although it’s important to select a high-quality school, it’s equally important to choose one that accepts your VA benefits package. Graduating school with an avalanche of debt can make it more difficult to realize the full value of your education. It can also force you to choose a high salary over a job that offers lower pay but greater fulfillment.
To overcome this, consider the following costs:
- Tuition and fees.
- The cost of commuting or moving, especially if the school is in an area with a high cost of living.
- Whether you’ll be able to graduate before your benefits run out. Rushing through school can affect your grades, so it’s important to choose the right pace at the right institution.
- Return on investment. A pricey school that does little to help you get a job may not be a worthwhile investment, particularly compared to a school that offers veterans numerous helpful resources.
What assistance does my school offer?
Veterans can choose from hundreds of schools, but just thirteen schools are designated as Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success (CEVSS). These centers of higher learning boast a deep understanding not just of the challenges veterans face, but of the immense value they bring to a college. The full-time team at the SNU VETS Center specializes in helping you succeed, from the moment you contact us through graduation and beyond.
When evaluating schools’ ability to support soldiers, ask the following:
- Are there veterans on staff who have successfully transitioned to civilian life?
- How many veterans attend the school?
- What specific services does the school offer for veterans?
- Is the college designated as a Military Friendly school?
- Can the school help with VA benefits, including the application process?
- Are there veteran support groups on campus?
SNU proudly supports the men and women who have put everything on the line to serve our nation. We would love to help you plan the next chapter of your life. Contact us to learn more about what sets us apart.