A couple of months ago, my best friend, a very smart and capable woman, was struggling with the decision to return to school. She joined the Air Force after earning her graduate degree, is currently a major in the reserves, and, on active duty, we served several deployments together. Even with all of this experience, the thought of going back to school still filled her with trepidation.
“Which program is right for me? How do I use my G.I. Bill benefits? Where do I even start?” were some of the questions that she asked me.
Her questions were similar to the ones I’d heard from so many of my students while serving as an Academic Advisor and Department of Veterans Affairs school-certifying official. Compared to the military, a college or university can seem like the most foreign and chaotic of places. With a little bit of preparation, though, you can make your transition to student veteran much easier and get the most out of your time in higher education.
1. Reach out early.
Many schools have special programs or benefits for student veterans, such as waiving application fees, while others may have specific requirements you have to meet, such as in-resident status. The sooner you find out about them, the better. Also, if you’re trying to apply or register while in another city or state, it helps to have a point of contact who can lift registration holds or remove other administrative roadblocks.
2. Know what you want to study and get prepped.
Six semesters in, while in your last month of G.I. Bill benefits, is not the time to decide what you want to be studying. Spend some time thinking about it before you get to college so that once there every choice you make is helping you reach that goal. Also, be sure to get your transcripts sent to the school as soon as possible. They can take up to a semester to be evaluated and you don’t want to have to retake a class you already passed or pay back your G.I. Bill because you used it to pay for a class that you didn’t need . Testing out of college prep classes, such as remedial math, can also save time and benefits. Generally this can be done through CLEP, DANTES, or the school’s local test.
3. Apply for as much financial aid as possible.
Often student veterans think they can’t or shouldn’t apply for scholarships or federal financial aid, such as the PELL grant, if they are already using their G.I. Bill benefits. Neither assumption is correct. Not only is it legal, it’s highly recommended. Even if your G.I. Bill covers your tuition and fees, PELL grants and other funds can be used to pay for books, buy a new computer, or even pay for the gas you need to get to campus. Alternatively, you can put any extra money into a savings account to cover expenses once your G.I. Bill runs out.
Keep in mind that you must apply for federal financial aid every year and your award amount is based on your income. The first time you apply after leaving active duty, you may be denied because you made too much money the previous year. Request that your financial aid office perform a “professional judgment” based on your change in employment status. It’s no guarantee you’ll get the money, but it will improve your chances.
One note of caution: Be wary of incurring student loans. They can rack up quickly and end up tanking your credit score down the road if you default on them. Look into all the options, such as grants and scholarships, which don’t need to be repaid, before considering taking out a loan. If you do take out a loan, make sure the education you’re getting in return is worth it.
4. Get involved.
A college campus has the potential to be a very isolating place if you let it. But it is also brimming with opportunities that go beyond just the classroom. Start by connecting with your school’s veterans office and/or student veterans group; this can help make the transition from service to school less dramatic. Then, branch out. Not only is volunteering to be treasurer for student government or president of the computer science club a good way to meet people who have similar interests as you, it’s also an opportunity to network and even fill in gaps in your resume. And students who get involved are less likely to drop out.
5. Speak up.
We all learned to “shut up and color” in the military and that’s a habit that can be hard to break. But colleges actually encourage their students to speak up, and now that you’re in charge of your destiny, if you don’t do it, no one else will. Think a professor gave you an unfair grade? Approach him or her about it, respectfully of course. Get charged for a class you dropped? Ask the financial aid office how to get it removed from your account. Think you might be failing a class and not sure how that will impact your G.I. Bill? Speak to your school certifying official.
I’m happy to say my friend will be starting her new educational program in just a few weeks. In fact, she’s found the process to be even easier than she expected, thanks to several of these tips.