By Rose Holland, CWDP

I’ve seen a lot lately about the “best” schools for military families. I despise these articles. I know that is strong wording, but I really do.  Here is why.  What is right for me, may not be right for you! So what should you look for to find your “best” school?

1. Does the school have regional accreditation?

This is a must. Now your instinct might say national accreditation would seem to be better. This is not true. Regional accreditation is more stringent and respected. Why is this important? Credits from a nationally accredited college are much less likely to transfer. I have seen more than one military spouse who could not transfer credits. In one case, a spouse wanted to get her RN. She had an LPN associates degree. Not one single credit transferred towards her RN. She had to start from scratch. There are some schools who will not consider a full degree from a nationally accredited or non-accredited school if you are applying to earn a master’s degree. See why this is so important? It may not be today, but it could make a huge difference in the future.

2. Are there academic services to help you succeed?

As a parent of two children with learning disabilities, this has been very important. This should be important for our veterans with PTSD or TBI as well! The community college my son obtained his associates degree from had limited services. He is now going to a Big 10 school and the difference in services is startling. In our college search there were many different programs available, depending on the school. If you fall into this category be sure to visit your schools disability services.

Even if you do not have a learning disability, you need to know what types of tutoring services are available. Some colleges have a specific number of free sessions while others have unlimited. Find out who tutors.  Is it fellow students, graduate students or others? Do they get training? How are they selected? My niece was a tutor and was selected by the specific professors based on her performance in certain classes. She received training and was evaluated. At my son’sschool community college, he could not find a tutor for 3 classes, to include a math class. It was very frustrating. These services differ from school to school and even department to department. Ask questions and find out how the school will help you succeed academically.

3. How’s the learning environment?

This ranges from class size, to type of learning environment, to access to staff. What works best for you? You need to know yourself and your learning style.

4. What is the class size?

What my son loved about community college was the size of the classes. His largest one was 26, but most were less than 20. At his current school he has two classes with over 100 students.  However, his higher level classes tend to have around 20 or less. If you hate large class sizes, consider going to a community college for the basic classes. Be sure the community college has regional accreditation, and if you know what college you want to attend next, verify that they will accept the credits. (Be sure to keep copies of your syllabi as this is how many evaluate the transfer of credits.)

5. On-line or in person?

For many military families, on-line classes are perfect. They allow you to work from anywhere and if you PCS five times or more it is no big deal. That doesn’t mean they are right for everyone. Find out about the platforms used (be sure your computer can handle it). Talk to current students. How much interaction do you have with the professor and other students? Know yourself. If you cannot prioritize schoolwork without attending a classroom setting or have an issue staying self-motivated, on-line classes might not be right for you. One spouse told me she had had a horrible time with on-line, because if she is at home she will focus on what needs to be done there rather than her schoolwork. One of my dear friends went to an on-line school for her master’s degree. She loved it because she could do her schoolwork anywhere to include while her child was taking dance or participating in a sport. She found the interaction with her fellow students stimulating because of the way her college set up the on-line courses.

6. How are the professors?

You need to know your access to your professors. For larger schools with large class sizes, you may not have access to the professor but rather a teaching assistant or TA. You should also find out the education and experience level of your professors. Some schools focus on academic achievement while others prefer professors who have real-world experience. Know your own preference.

7. How long are classes?

I consider two things here, how long a class lasts on a calendar and the length of time you spend in a classroom. Consider calendar length. Some schools have six or eight-week sessions and others have four month or semester sessions. Each has its benefits. I even attended a two-week course one January. When it comes to classroom time, know your limits for time in the classroom. I can only stand an hour in a lecture setting, but in a discussion or lab three or four hours is acceptable. Everyone has his or her own limits.

Bottom line, know yourself and what works for you. Do not let someone talk you into something you know is not a good fit.

8. How much is tuition?

This seems to be obvious, but I wanted to add it because the cost is not always what it seems. For example, many private schools (and some larger state schools) have large endowments that can provide financial assistance. Some schools have a strong financial aid section that will really work with you to help you find scholarships. If you are a military family, you may be able to get in state tuition for your child through a Yellow Ribbon program. Know that the moment you PCS to a new state, you and your family should be able to receive in-state tuition at your new location. Never hesitate to ask. There are many programs out there to help you afford college.

9. Reputation in your field

Not every college is going to be strong in every major. While it may not matter in some fields, if you are in a competitive field do not underestimate the importance. Do your research. Talk to a number people in the profession and ask which schools are well respected. Does your college or university have a student professional organization for your field? How big is the department? What are the qualifications of the professors in the department? Have they published or given professional talks in their field? These are all things you may want to consider.

10. Check out the internship or externship opportunities

Internships and externships are becoming more important. Many community colleges have such programs, as do most four-year colleges and universities. This is a great way to get experience in the field and provides you with a leg up as you search for that first full-time job in your field of study. Find out what types of programs your department has for internships or externships. Do they help place you, provide guidance or leave it up to you? How much assistance to they provide? Where have others had internships? Some colleges have great programs with the leaders in your field while others have nothing available.

11. Are there career services and placement?

Career services vary vastly. Some colleges provide extensive career counseling and placement services, while others have one counselor for thousands of students. A few colleges offer no services for those attending on-line but offer a plethora for those attending in person. Services should be available to alumni, but are not always. Check to see what types of job postings are on the site and ask these questions. Much of this can be seen on the college or university’s website.

12. Any student activities?

It is important to get involved. One of the schools my son visited required anyone using the GI bill to join at least three clubs. Their reasoning was that research has proved a greater percentage of students complete their education when they are involved. So, get involved! If sports are important to you, find out what kind of intermural sports are available. Does the school have sports teams you can watch? I know some schools even have organizations specifically for veterans, older students and military families. Do not be afraid to get involved, even if you are an older student! At a minimum, find a professional club to join. It shows your passion for your field.

13. Strong alumni association?

Networking is key in any job search. Many schools have strong alumni networking programs and alumni chapters throughout the country. It is not just the big name schools either. My tiny college has alumni groups throughout the country. Networking will be key in your job search and alumni can help point you in the right direction and provide mentorship.

In the end, it is up to you. There is no right set of schools for everyone. Do not just accept any list. Do your own homework. Invest the time into your search for a school. You are going to be investing quite a bit of time, energy and money. If possible, visit the school and make an appointment with admissions and the department for your potential major. Schools should welcome your questions and encourage you to talk to other students and visit classrooms. It shows how serious you are taking the search. It will be worth the time and effort to make an educated choice and know you are a right fit.

Tell us your stories, good and bad. What is the best educational decision you have made, or the worst?