If you’re an active-duty member of the military with some spare time for education or a recently-transitioned vet, chances are you’re looking to spend that sweet Post-9/11 GI Bill money you’ve been hearing about your entire career. As one of the best benefits offered to service members, the bill gives eligible troops up to 36 months of education benefits and covers a range of things, including tuition fees, housing, books, and supplies.

The problem a lot of men and women face isn’t what to study, but where. Navigating the requirements, benefits, and restrictions of the Post-9/11 GI Bill is a daunting task for many service members as they transition out and no longer have the support of their NCOs and unit. Luckily, thousands have faced the same decisions, and as they say in the military, don’t let someone else’s mistake prevent you from learning from it.

Task & Purpose is going to help you out with a few after-action review notes before selecting a school.

Make sure the school is actually approved

This is step one and should be pretty obvious, but just like those commercials where they have to add a disclaimer saying the truck shown speeding on top of a lake isn’t actually a boat, it means someone had to learn the hard way.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a great benefit, but for many reasons, they don’t allow you to use it anywhere. Whether in-person or online, the program must be approved by the VA before they’ll pay for you to attend. Penn State World Campus: check. Ms. Florentia’s Mood Crystal Fabrication Course: probably not.

Don’t worry, the VA has made the process simple. Their school search tool is right here. You can also compare the benefits you’ll get attending different schools, as no two programs are the same, and you’ll want to get the most bang for your buck.

Determine what kind of support they offer

The day you take off the uniform is exciting — and a little scary. For the first time in years, there’s no one to support you and help you walk through the next steps in your life. Just because a school is on the VA-approved list doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good fit. Do you have a service-related disability? Do you need additional assistance with a unique life situation that may or may not be covered under your benefits? Does the degree you’re pursuing require additional funds outside of the scope of the standard GI Bill? When doing your research, the options available to servicemen and women should be front and center (see what I did there).

Know yourself and your comfort zone

Despite what some people believe, joining the military doesn’t automatically change your values, hobbies, or lifestyle preferences. Just because a school is on the approved list doesn’t ensure it is the right environment for you. Many veterans struggle with integration after taking off the uniform. In-person classes mean you’ll be sitting and learning with students that may be several years younger, with limited life experience and predetermined beliefs. Do you really want to be the person answering every question with “as a veteran” to qualify an opinion? Probably not.

For these reasons and many others, online courses have been skyrocketing in popularity among veterans. You can focus on your education, tailor your class schedule to your life, and avoid the distractions (and expenses) of an in-person experience. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that more than 6.5 million students took some form of online education courses in the fall 2017 semester. Though they haven’t released the numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it’s reasonable to assume that number has only grown.

The stigma that used to be associated with distance learning is dead, and a growing portion of the college-educated workforce is now showing up to their first jobs with a degree earned online

If this seems like an attractive option, then check out a virtual open house at some of the top-ranked programs like this one. An early red flag for any online school would be their lack of a preview option. But keep in mind, online learning usually pays less on the GI Bill’s housing allowance, so if you’re banking on the VA to pay your rent, it may not be the best option for you.

Still, the web is filled with horror stories about the experiences of veterans in classrooms interacting with other students and teachers who may hold certain opinions about service members or the military in general. While most of this is greatly exaggerated, it’s worth addressing if it’s a concern. The solution, do a few site visits, and ideally pop-in to a few classes before you make a commitment. You’d be surprised what you can find out just by talking to students and asking honest questions.

Check the rankings

So where to start? Spend some time online and search for the top-ranked online programs. Not just in a single category, but overall. One name will consistently jump out: Penn State World Campus.

In 2020 it was the only school in the country to have received six separate top 10 rankings — like #2 in Best Online MBA and Masters Programs for Veterans, by the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Online Programs, for the fourth consecutive year. For those reasons and many others, scores of vets now have Penn State as an alma mater, including Ron Banerjee, a disabled Navy service member who overcame a severe back injury to earn his Masters of Professional Studies in Organization Development and Change. It never hurts to ask the community who else has attended to get a gauge on the caliber of support you can expect.

Find a program that is right for you

Again, this should be a no-brainer, but check to see if your top-choice school actually offers an accredited program in the field you want to study. If not, then what’s the point?

Remember, you sacrificed a lot for your country, and the GI Bill is Uncle Sam’s way of saying thank you. Don’t squander the opportunity. Find a program that fits your schedule, offers competitive coursework, a responsive faculty, and a support staff geared towards helping veterans integrate and achieve their full potential.

These are your benefits. Make the right choice and use them wisely.

This article is sponsored by Penn State World Campus.