Life after the military: How to find the best online schools for veterans
By Elizabeth Exline
June 01, 2021 • 4 minute read
Figuring out when and where to go to college can be challenging enough on its own. The experience can be even more complicated for active-duty military service members and veterans looking for the best online schools.
Service members face a transition out of one life (military) and into another (civilian). This process requires a multitude of decisions, from where they want to live to how their skills will translate to the workforce. And all of this happens against a backdrop of what Brian Ishmael, vice president of military veteran affairs and strategic government partnerships at University of Phoenix (UOPX), describes as a “full-time job of serving their country.”
While difficult, this process of finding the best online schools for veterans is not impossible. As service members begin to consider life after the military, the first step is figuring out what options are available.
When higher education is a good idea
A university education isn’t the answer for everyone. But it can help service members who are looking to advance their careers within the military or find new careers as civilians. And, besides filling in skill gaps, college offers some occasionally surprising advantages.
“The way we communicate in the military is not the way everyone communicates in the civilian workforce,” Ishmael observes. “In this way, school can serve as a sort of buffer between military training and civilian life while simultaneously preparing service members for a new career path.”
Advantages and challenges
In many ways, education is a two-way street, and military service members bring strong skills and assets to the college classroom. They’re already “proven leaders,” says Ishmael, and their ability to think on their feet and work as a team make them resilient classmates with plenty to contribute.
“They’re also very mission-driven,” he adds. Whether it’s a grade or a classroom goal, they “drive toward that success.”
Yet service members also face a unique set of challenges. Their age, life experience and skills can put them in direct contrast with traditional college students, Ishmael points out. And veterans often have families and full-time jobs when they go to school, which adds still more differentiating factors.
Interestingly, online college can help level the playing field among students. “In the online space, you don’t see those differences right off the bat,” Ishmael says.
The sacrifice and service of the U.S. military is something University of Phoenix strives to recognize all year long. In addition to providing ongoing academic support and services for military students, UOPX commemorates Memorial Day each year by planting 10,000 flags on the lawn of its Phoenix campus.
Developing a transition plan
For service members who elect to go to school after leaving the military, it is essential to have what Ishmael terms a transition plan.
Ideally, they should begin considering a post-military career path about a year before they’re discharged. This career might build on the skills they’ve learned in the military. Service members, however, need to understand how those skills can translate to civilian language and jobs.
For example, Ishmael points out how even the word “job” is not common parlance in the military. (Instead, a job is a “military occupation specialty” or “MOS”.) Ishmael himself had this experience when he left the Army, where he served in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) as a 13 Bravo. He had to figure out how that artillery experience, combined with other military training, could be understood and parleyed into a civilian career.
Sometimes this process reveals a need to acquire additional skills. Whether or not these can be supplemented by certification training, trade training or a four-year degree is yet another question to be addressed.
“If you can start that process while you’re in the military, it’s very likely tuition assistance is available,” Ishmael says. The Post-9/11 GI Bill®, for example, provides funding to servicemembers for school or job training. (In addition to other criteria, eligible military members must have served on active duty after September 10, 2001.)
There are many more resources available to veterans as well. In fact, Ishmael points out that it can sometimes be overwhelming to figure out which one(s) offer the most advantages. In those cases, veterans can reach out for help navigating a way forward. Dedicated service organizations like Veterans of Foreign Wars or a state department of Veterans’ Services are good options.
Finding the best online schools for veterans
With a career path in mind, service members and veterans must next determine which institution is the best school for them.
Ishmael is, of course, partial to online school. He points out how it offers more flexibility if service members are deployed or returning to school after a big gap. Online college also lets veterans better juggle their commitments to their families and jobs while working toward a new career.
No matter where you land on the traditional-vs.-online spectrum there are a few universal points to consider when deciding on the best online schools for veterans. According to Ishmael, these include:
Make sure you maximize your transfer credits. “Find a school that’s going to be able to transfer the majority of your credits,” Ishmael advises. Veterans and service members should be able to apply and figure out how many credits will transfer to a given university. “If you get to that point, and the school is asking for money, that’s a bad sign,” he says. “You should be able to shop around and find out how you can maximize your skills from the military.”
Don’t discount prior learning assessments (PLA). This offering enables eligible students to turn real-life experience and training into college credit via essays and/or exams. “I would like to see more service members engage in PLA,” Ishmael says. It’s a convenient way to save both time and money.
See if your spouse can come along for the educational ride. “I oftentimes feel that spouses have served alongside their military spouses,” Ishmael says. Most institutions, he notes, will offer a military rate, but not all schools let spouses take advantage of that.
Going back to school during or after a military career may not be easy. But with options, assistance and the same grit used to excel in the armed forces, a diploma can symbolize a path to a new life.
Curious how higher education can help you change your life? Check out this recent grad’s inspiring story.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill