Years ago, I watched as President Barack Obama launched the Post-9/11 GI Bill in front of a crowd of student veterans and their spouses at George Mason University. It was a great gift, ensuring veterans the opportunity to earn a degree and pursue their dreams.
But what good is a gift if you’re not prepared to use it to its full potential? If you’re thinking about college, ask yourself these questions:
1. Why do you want to get your college degree?
This is a question I pose to my students on the first day of class and I always have a couple of blank stares.
Be honest with yourself. Who are you getting your degree for? Are you pursuing a degree because you think that’s what you should be doing? What is your ultimate goal and how will a college degree help you achieve that goal?
There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions, but being aware of why you’re investing the time and energy into earning a degree will help you outline your goals, narrow down which type of programs you should be looking at and, hopefully, stay on track and be successful in the long term.
2. What type of degree will help you achieve your goals?
A lot of emphasis and importance is placed on traditional four-year programs at nonprofit universities, for good reason. Four-year programs offer students a well-rounded education. You’ll take core courses in humanities subjects and schools offer a variety of majors. Many traditional schools offer study abroad opportunities and encourage students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones by taking classes outside of their field. The skills you develop in a four-year program can be applied to a variety of jobs after.
For-profit schools often catch a lot of negative media attention and not all of it is unjustified. However, for students who do their research and develop well-defined goals, certain for-profit programs may be the right fit. For nontraditional students who work full time and/or have families to support, these schools provide flexibility with scheduling that many traditional programs cannot. For those who are already working in the field they want to be in and need a degree to reach the next level, these schools can be a good option if approved by employers.
While the Post-9/11 GI Bill does not cover technical and vocational schools the same way it covers degree programs, it does reimburse students for actual net costs for in-state tuition. These training schools offer practical skills to their students, often leading to apprenticeships and full-time employment.
3. What type of community will help you achieve your goals and help you complete your degree?
Communities are an essential component when considering schools. They can make or break a student’s experience. Communities act as an additional support structure, holding students accountable and helping to ensure their success.
You need to ask yourself whether you can thrive at a large university with potentially 100-plus students in your class, or if you would benefit from smaller class sizes with more support from your instructor.
A challenge many student veterans face when returning to a traditional school is the community of students that are in their classes. Historically, at traditional four-year schools, the majority of students are between 18 and 22. Student veterans often express dismay at relating to their younger classmates who don’t share similar life experiences and perspectives.
Students at nontraditional schools are often older — 27 is the median age, according to Forbes Magazine — and have families and life experience that veterans can connect with.
4. How well does the school you’re considering support its student veteran population?
There are many ways to define “support.” Many schools offer financial support through yellow ribbon programs and scholarships for service members. On Aug. 1, Congress passed legislation granting student veterans in-state tuition at public universities.
There is a long list of colleges and universities that provide additional services to its veteran population. Many support veterans clubs and organizations, helping student vets connect with and support each other. Some schools provide academic and career counselors specifically for student veterans.
Looking for more? The Department of Veterans Affairs offers these questions to consider.
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