Why An On-Campus Experience Is More Valuable Than You Think

Air Force Reservist Jon Walters, 35, talks about his experiences with community police relations with his criminal justice classmates at McHenry County College, Nov. 28, 2012.
AP Photo/Northwest Herald, H. Rick Bamman

The professional and personal benefits of having a college degree in the 21st century are undeniable. Service members and veterans working multiple jobs while raising families see the value in devoting time and money to higher education. Unfortunately, they don't always consider applying to brick-and-mortar campuses because of a flurry of misconceptions regarding the experience and outcome of an online education. Online programs are notoriously marketed to service members by emphasizing low tuition costs and unparalleled convenience, but potential applicants are ill-informed about what an on-campus experience could offer.

The widespread demand for a college education at a fraction of the cost has driven the industry to create online parallels to traditional classroom exercises. Discussion boards went digital, lectures became videos, and real-time, document-editing software facilitated group projects. The rapid advancement of educational technology has paved the way for purely online degree-seeking programs to emerge, but such a remote educational experience does not always compare to traditional higher education. While online programs grow in popularity, I would argue against the “check the box” attitude when it comes to a college degree for multiple reasons.

Related: 5 things veterans need to consider about online degrees »

Despite what you might have been led to believe, it isn’t just about having an expensive piece of paper that makes you an attractive candidate to potential employers. A college education is about being engulfed in an interactive environment that empowers you to explore your interests, grow relationships with other students, and build a network of professional mentors from faculty. Additionally, veterans can further benefit from an on-campus program by using it to readjust into civilian life.

Regardless of the program, institution, or geographic area, attending college-level courses in-person is a completely different experience from online learning. In a classroom setting, students have the ability to ask questions and participate in discussion immediately. While the information is still fresh in everyone’s minds, it can be discussed, questioned, clarified, or dissected. Unfiltered reactions from other students freely speaking their minds is invaluable, as it teaches students about different worldviews and perspectives without censorship. The value of interacting with others unlike yourself cannot be underestimated, and online programs cannot fully facilitate the exchange of ideas and expression of perspectives among students like they are in a classroom.

Building a network is another essential part of getting a job or promoting your career. Despite technology’s advances in communication, there is no equivalent to real human interactions. Building a network is far easier and more effective when it’s done face to face. On-campus programs have the unmatched ability to pair students with faculty mentors and industry professionals in a way that is not possible through online programs. Even the personal attention students receive during office hours with a professor is enough to make the argument that online programs cannot fully replicate a quality college education.

Countless veterans have expressed difficulty adapting back into civilian life after service in the military. Luckily, colleges and universities are in the business of making their students feel welcomed and quickly assimilated. Students from around the world converge on a single location to live and learn, and that is something that cannot be replicated through an online education. With that said, there are endless ways for veterans to become involved in the community and adjust to a new social environment. Due to a probable difference in age, maturity, and experience, veterans have much to teach and learn from in such an environment.

Another reason for utilizing on-campus programs for readjustment that is often overlooked is the fact that most colleges and universities provide services to their students that are very similar to those provided in the military. Accessibility to dining facilities, medical assistance, counselling, recreation centers, support groups, and a gym are just a few examples of the many similarities between campuses and military installations that can help a veteran transition to civilian life. When they don’t have to worry about how or where to find such services, veterans can spend that time socializing and reconnecting with the community.

Some may argue that a student can receive the same quality of education through a balanced program of online and classroom courses. Additionally, receiving credit from online programs to cut the cost and length of an on-campus program is a common strategy, but still removes some of the in-person experience students are meant to have at an educational institution. For example, a business student may decide to take all of their communication or ethics courses online, thereby preventing a full exposure to group discussion and exploration of such essential topics.

Realistically, there is no alternative to the classroom; online programs will continue to have pitfalls that distance it from traditional on-campus programs.

The Armed Forces Service Medal has a green, blue and yellow ribbon and a bronze medal featuring a torch like that held by the Statue of Liberty. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared onMilitary.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

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