How Military Personnel Can Make the Most of Online College

Military service and online college are natural barrack-mates. Whether you’re training on a base far away from home, stationed abroad, or returning to civilian life, your commitment to service is foremost. This means that your education must be flexible, convenient, and tailored to the particular demands that service places on your schedule, your availability, and your lifestyle.

For many military service members, online college provides the perfect balance. In fact, military personnel and veterans are significantly more likely than the average student to attend college online. According to Inside Higher Ed, in 2012 (the most recent year for which data was available) 18% of military undergrads took all of their courses online, as compared to 12% of their nonmilitary peers. The gap was even wider for graduate students, with a full 41% of service members taking all of their courses online, as compared to 19% of nonmilitary students.

There’s a good reason for this. Your unique priorities, the importance of your duty, and the need to balance your priorities make online education especially suited for your needs. And based on your service, many opportunities are uniquely available to you. The GI Bill® — as well as state veteran benefits and a huge list of military scholarships and grants — should provide the funding and resources so that you can earn a degree either during or after your military service, regardless of your economic situation. Using these earned benefits should open a bright future for you, either in the military or as a civilian.

According to one recent study, the skills and traits you developed while serving are particularly valuable when it comes to online education. These include discipline, goal-orientation, determination, and the capacity for self-regulation, all virtues that will be of tremendous value as you pursue a degree or certification.

With that said, you must also proceed with caution. Loopholes in our legal code make your GI Bill an especially juicy source of revenue for less-than-legitimate schools. Choose wisely.

To help you make that wise choice, we’ve enlisted the input of an expert. Marine veteran and Senior Special Agent for the U.S. Secret Service Paul A. Buta lends his insights to a series of simple tips to help you make the most of the educational opportunities you’ve earned through your service.

Make the Most of Your GI Bill

The best place to begin your search is the place where it all started — the GI Bill.

With the end of World War II, a whole generation of military personnel returned to civilian life. To ensure returning veterans and all future service members enjoyed the brightest of prospects upon their return, Congress enacted the GI Bill in 1944. Among other things, the new legislation provided veterans with funding and resources for college education. Nearly eight million out of 16 million World War II veteran soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen took advantage by attending college or trade schools. It not only helped a generation of soldiers adapt to civilian life, but it nearly doubled the nation’s college population, expanding our collective knowledge, talents, and ambitions. Economic growth surged.

So in the simplest terms, the GI Bill is an awesome thing. Take advantage of these benefits.

The Bill has undergone numerous changes over the course of its existence, often in the face of political conditions or military engagements. The most recent and consequential of these changes came in 2008. The Post-9/11 GI Bill was refined to include a dramatically expanded set of benefits for veterans of the War on Terror. These expanded benefits included greater funding for vocational and certification options, funding for housing and books, and removal of state-imposed caps on funding for public college tuition.

In 2017, Congress passed the Forever GI Bill, which eliminated the time limit for the use of veteran benefits. Previously, service members eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill had 15 years following discharge to make the most of their opportunities. This legislation removes these limitations, meaning you can return to school with the help of your GI Bill even after a long lapse in both your service and studies.

The bill also expanded benefits for National Guard and Reserve members, Purple Heart recipients, students focused on STEM programs, and enrollees at schools that have shut down mid-semester.

If you’ve served in the military, or are currently serving, you have earned the benefits included in the GI Bill. Some benefits may also apply to your spouse, including the transfer of any unused portion of your grant. This presents you (and your family) with a unique opportunity for education or career training without many of the standard financial burdens and obstacles. So, when it comes to choosing an online college or certificate program, your GI Bill opens up a world of options. Explore that world.

Beware of Shady For-Profits

This world of options does come with some risk. The GI Bill represents an enormous source of revenue for colleges and universities. And not every college or university has your best interests in mind. Since the earliest days of the GI Bill, shady degree mills and other nonaccredited colleges or universities have emerged to exploit this funding.

It’s common to think of exploitative for-profit colleges as a recent phenomenon but in fact, an array of “fly-by-night commercial vocational ‘schools’” emerged in the 1940s to profit from veteran tuition grants. At the time, neither the military nor federal government provided oversight to ensure the credibility of training programs or the availability of information on how to choose such programs.

Fortunately, the latter of these conditions has changed. The Department of Veteran Affairs now maintains resources for choosing military-recognized schools along with a considerable wealth of information on how to leverage your GI Bill benefits.

Still, with the proliferation of the for-profit model over the last two decades, certain risks have been magnified. In fact, today, many degree mills and otherwise disreputable colleges prey on military veterans and their families through aggressive advertising and recruitment tactics. The unique legal parameters surrounding the GI Bill make it simple for such institutions to take advantage of your funding.

In an upcoming article, we’ll dive deeper on the GI Bill and tell you how you can make the most of it without falling prey to exploitative practices. In the meantime, the most important advice we can impart is to do your research. Conduct due diligence to ensure the online schools on your radar are credible, reputable, and effective in producing employable graduates.

The Department of Veteran Affairs maintains a website where you can lodge and review complaints against disreputable schools in relation to their acceptance of the GI Bill.

Don’t Forget About Accreditation

You should also consider the accreditation status of your intended school. Accreditation is granted by agencies that are formally recognized by the Department of Education. Legitimate accreditation typically indicates that an institution is both maintaining its standards and remaining current within its field. There are both regional and national accreditation groups. When it comes to colleges and universities, regional accreditation is considered superior.

However, it’s not uncommon for vocational schools and certificate programs to carry only national, program-specific accreditation. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, but it should prompt you to conduct further research on the school’s reputation, as well as the reputation of the accrediting agency.

We can’t stress enough the importance of research (besides, it’s good practice, because you’ll be doing a ton of research in school). Conduct online searches to discover a school’s history, track record, and even reviews from former and current students. Find out about graduation rates, postgraduate employment rates, and other key indicators of quality. And if you can’t find this information on your chosen school, that’s a good sign right from the start that it may not be the most reputable institution.

The key is to make an informed decision about where to get your education.

As you can see, accreditation can be complex. To learn more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors? As for your specific school, the easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact the admissions board and ask. You can also take a look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.

Search for Military-Friendly Schools

To make your search easier, explore the unique set of institutions that cater specifically to military personnel, guardsmen, and veterans. Some schools are designed to address your specific needs, whether that means working within the schedule created by your service commitments, managing attendance challenges created by deployment, or providing the kinds of support, counseling, and family resources distinctly necessary within military communities.

Many colleges and universities are sensitive to both the academic and personal needs of military personnel and their families. Again, the Department of Veterans Affairs offers a resource that can help you narrow your search to schools uniquely accommodating of military needs.

See our listing of schools affiliated with the five branches of the US Armed Forces: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

Because these schools are especially cognizant of the challenges that service places on your schedule and lifestyle, you will likely find many offer a full array of online learning opportunities. Reach out to any of these institutions directly to learn more about opportunities for online attendance.

Seek Scholarships — There Are Plenty

As long as we’re on the subject of opportunities, the GI Bill is really just the start of it. All kinds of organizations — both public and private — wish to show gratitude to our troops. Fortunately, that gratitude usually takes the shape of funding.

Countless scholarships and grants are available for veterans, active military personnel, and aspiring service members. These scholarships come in numerous shapes and sizes. One scholarship might provide you with a few hundred dollars toward a new laptop. Another might provide you with tens of thousands to pursue your own graduate research project.

Of course, you have to apply to seize these opportunities. If you're a soldier, sailor, airman, guardsman, or marine, we strongly advise that you do. We scratch the surface with our military scholarship directory, but there are new scholarships and grants popping up every day. Browse these opportunities and apply to any and all that seem relevant to you. While the GI Bill can help you get started, these scholarships and grants can help you take your education and your opportunity to the next level.

Make It a Family Affair

Online college isn’t just great for military personnel but for their spouses and children as well. As part of a military family, it can often be difficult if not impossible to predict where the next assignment might take you. Whether stationed domestically or deployed abroad, moving may simply be a part of your life. Fortunately, your login location won’t matter to your online professor.

If you are part of a military family, the lifestyle brings uncertainties. Your educational program might need to permit travel across international borders, engagement at all hours of the day, or pursuit on a long-term, part-time basis without penalty. Even without considering the unique educational benefits of being part of a military family, online college could be a flexible option for your lifestyle.

And, as indicated above, the Department of Veteran Affairs permits the transfer of any unused portion of the GI Bill to one’s spouse or dependent. This is great news for families with one budding military career and one aspiring scholar. It does bear noting that the Department of Defense makes the ultimate determination regarding eligibility for transfer.

But beyond G.I. benefits, as the spouse or child of a veteran or active military personnel, you are also eligible for any number of scholarships and grants geared directly toward you and your needs. These resources can make online education accessible, affordable, and possibly even free.

Don’t Settle

When you consider the benefits provided by the GI Bill, the funding opportunities uniquely available to you, and the resources that exist to help you navigate the landscape, you’ve got a lot of options. There’s no need to settle.

With the right combination of grants and scholarships, you could be in a positive position when it comes to choosing a school. Now all you need is the information to make an informed decision. Consider this an official reconnaissance mission.

Visit our Military Education HQ to check out a ton of other great resources for military service members and veterans.

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://benefits.va.gov/gibill/index.asp