The Savvy Student’s Guide To Military and Online College
| TBS Staff
Are you ready to discover your college program?
As a servicemember in the US military, you’re no stranger to smart decision-making. During your time in the service, you’ve harnessed your knowledge, discipline, and personal fortitude to choose the right path forward. The same is true of higher education. Making savvy educational decisions takes knowledge, discipline, and personal fortitude.
As a veteran, or a member of the U.S. military, the National Guard, the Coast Guard, or the Reserves, you’ve developed a number of skills that will be of tremendous value as you explore the world of higher education.
But there’s also a lot that you’ll need to know as you take these next steps. Below is a comprehensive look at everything you’ll need to know as you transition from military to online college. You’ll learn how to finance your education, take full advantage of your G.I. benefits, choose military-friendly schools, and improve your chances of success once enrolled.
Read straight through or jump to the sections that are most relevant to your situation. Either way, get informed and get started on your path to academic success!
Covered in this article:
- Making The Transition to Online Education
- Paying For Your Education
- Choose the Best School
- Succeeding in Online College
- Get Academic Help
Making The Transition to Online Education
If you’re planning on making the move from military service to online education, be sure that you take advantage of the numerous transitional services and resources provided directly through the military. In many cases, you’ll actually begin the process of preparing for your next steps while still serving.
The Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (TAP) is a program designed to prepare you for some of the most important dimensions of transition. TAP provides information, tools, and training to help you and your family prepare for and navigate the experience of transitioning from military service to civilian life. Start by visiting the Department of Defense website and selecting your branch of service or by contacting your local Transition Assistance Office.
The Transition GPS Curriculum
The TAP program is a curriculum that you’ll access at key points throughout your military career. This outcome-based curriculum — called Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success) — helps military service members transition to civilian life while identifying and pursuing career goals.
This ongoing transition education program is designed to help you align immediate military goals with your civilian goals while preparing for life outside of the service. The curriculum includes several steps toward career readiness as well as a separate set of objectives for service members who intend to continue on to school. The program merges a core curriculum with individually-chosen subjects as well as career technical training and entrepreneurship opportunities.
If you are unable to access your Transition GPS curriculum in a physical classroom setting, the military does provide access to a Transition GPS Virtual Curriculum as well, which in addition to being convenient and flexible, is great practice for eventually attending an online college.
You can also visit the Department of Defense TAP program for more detail on TAP, the Transition GPS Curriculum, and the steps you’ll need to take to prepare for a move to a college, university, or technical school.
Other Transition Services
In addition to your TAP training program, the military provides access to a number of transition support resources both during your service and on an ongoing basis:
- Installation briefings: classes and seminars on goal setting, change management, and evaluating job offers.
- Individual assistance: provides personal help for you and your spouse for up to 180 days after the end of service, including one-on-one support, resources, needs assessments, and referrals.
[Click here for more tips on Making the Transition from Military to College]
Paying For Your Education
As a military veteran or service member, you have a wide range of funding options, including federal and state aid, your G.I. Bill benefits, and numerous scholarships, both military-specific and general. Be sure that you understand and take full advantage of all your options.
Fill Out Your FAFSA
The federal financial aid process for attending online colleges is virtually identical to the financial aid process for traditional colleges.
This is true for current military service members, transitioning veterans, and veterans who have spent several years away from both service and a formal education. In any of these instances, your very first move is to complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Whether you’re going to a traditional college, attending online classes, or both, everything starts with your FAFSA. These benefits can still apply, even if you’ll be taking advantage of the benefits included under your G.I. Bill. You may still be eligible for a number of federal loans and grants. These loans and grants can offset some of your college expenses or help make up the difference if your G.I. benefits don’t cover your full cost.
The FAFSA is a form that both current and prospective online college students must fill out annually to determine individual eligibility for student financial aid. This means that you’ll fill out a FAFSA not just at the start of your college career but for every year thereafter as well, so go ahead and get to know this important form.
The FAFSA is made available by the Department of Education. All service members seeking assistance for undergraduate or graduate studies have the right to fill it out. In fact, you should complete your FAFSA even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for a need-based loan. There are unsubsidized loans which are available to all, regardless of income. You must fill out your FAFSA to determine your eligibility.
General federal loans and grants include the following:
- The Pell Grant is awarded to students with demonstrated financial need, and repayment is not required.
- The Stafford Loan is a Federal Direct loan with a fixed interest rate and is available in both subsidized and unsubsidized forms.
- The Federal Perkins Loan is lent directly by Title IV-eligible schools (as opposed to the Federal Government) and must be repaid at a fixed interest rate of 5%.
- The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), like the Pell Grant, is awarded on the basis of financial need and repayment is not required.
- The Federal Work-Study Program gives eligible students an opportunity to do part-time, on-campus work to help offset the cost of tuition.
- The PLUS Loan is a student loan granted to the parent of the enrolled student, and has a similar repayment structure as the Stafford or Federal Perkins Loan.
- The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant requires you to take education classes to get your grant and subsequently requires you to keep a teaching job in a low-income school for a duration in order to prevent the grant from turning into a loan.
Once again, to determine your eligibility for any of these programs, you must begin by filling out your FAFSA.
[For tips and insights on the process of completing and submitting your FAFSA, check out Financial Aid for Online College: Everything You Need to Know and Do]
Service Grant for Children of Fallen Soldiers
You must also fill out your FAFSA to determine eligibility for the federal service grant:
The Service Grant is specifically intended for those applicants who are not financially eligible for a Pell Grant but who lost a parent or guardian to military combat in Iraq or Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. You must have been under twenty-four years old or enrolled in college at least part-time at the time of your parent or guardian’s death to be eligible. The maximum Service Grant award typically mirrors the Pell Grant. This means that, at the time of writing, the maximum Service Grant award would be in the amount of $5,920. This number will fluctuate in direct correspondence to changes in the maximum Pell Grant amount.
Read on to learn more about eligibility determinations for a federal service grant.
Select Colleges to Receive Your FAFSA
You can select to have your FAFSA information submitted to up to 10 colleges or universities, both traditional and online. Each college is identified by a Federal School Code. The FAFSA application site provides a Federal School Code Search tool. In addition to providing you with the School Codes you’ll need to complete your FAFSA, this tool provides detailed information on selected colleges including tuition, fees, and graduation rates. The tool also allows you to compare information for up to 10 colleges at a time.
Be sure to use this tool as you begin your college search. It’s particularly beneficial for identifying schools that are Title IV eligible, and whose students therefore qualify for financial aid. If a school on your radar doesn’t make the Federal School Code list, you may want to reconsider submitting an application.
[For a fuller understanding of accreditation, and how you can distinguish valid accreditation associations from those that lack credibility, check out our comprehensive look at Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?]
If you’re not sure where to submit your FAFSA, you can start with our list of The Best Online Colleges for Military Personnel & Families, which highlights schools that allow military students and their families to capitalize on the benefits included in their G.I. Bill, and may offer a number of other lucrative benefits, such as accelerated or part-time program options, veterans services and centers, online scholarship options, credit for lifetime/military experience, wide selections of entirely online programs, and significant populations of military students.
Anticipate Your Eligibility
The Office of Federal Student Aid provides an instrument called the FAFSA4caster. Use this to estimate the aid for which you are likely to be eligible. This free calculator can help you plan not only for this year of college but for the years ahead by projecting the amount of assistance you are likely to receive for the duration of your studies.
Submit Your FAFSA
You have several options for preparing and submitting your FAFSA:
- Online at fafsa.ed.gov. Log in here [PDF].
- By telephone at +1 (800) 433‐3243; or
- By mailing a paper application to:
Federal Student Aid Programs
P.O. Box 7650
London, KY 40742-7650
(This address pertains to the 2018–19 application. The address may change annually.)
Click here for more information on key FAFSA deadlines, conditions for eligibility, the types of loans or grants you could qualify for, how that eligibility is determined, and instructions on submission.
Apply for State-Specific Financial Aid
Many states also offer their own financial aid packages. You’ll definitely want to explore this option as well. Bear in mind that many states will have specific policies relating to online colleges. Funding is more readily available in some states than others. States will also have different policies regarding financial aid for state residents who will attend an online college out of state. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) offers a portal that allows you to view state-by-state financial aid opportunities, along with contact information. Reach out to somebody in your individual state to learn more.
Use Your G.I. Bill
Equally as important as completing your FAFSA is taking every necessary step to make the most of your G.I. Benefits.
The G.I. Bill refers to several education benefits programs that members of Active Duty, Selected Reserve, and National Guard Armed Forces can earn through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The benefits associated with the G.I. Bill are designed to help you or members of your family pursue educational or professional training goals by covering some or all of the costs.
Your benefits may vary, and there are a number of different benefits programs that operate under the umbrella of the G.I. Bill. Your duty status, service dates, length of service, and other eligibility requirements will determine the size of your benefits package as well as the program under which you are best served.
To learn more about your benefits, how you can access them, the resources available to you as you navigate these benefits, and which programs you are likely to qualify for, check out our Complete Guide to Using Your G.I. Bill.
And to ensure that you’re taking full advantage of your G.I. Bill and all the benefits you’ve earned, check out our tips for Making the Most of Your G.I. Bill.
You may be eligible for a wide range of scholarships based either on your service history or your intent to serve. But you may also qualify for a scholarship based on your academic background, religious affiliation, athletic gifts, and an almost endless array of other factors. A scholarship is a great way to get help with expenses like housing and books or offset the high cost of tuition for a private university that doesn’t qualify for full G.I. Bill coverage. Some of the more expensive private schools in the U.S. cost more than $50,000 a year. This means it’s quite possible for the cost of your education to significantly exceed the sum total of your yearly federal aid and G.I. Bill benefits.
[Refer to the Guide to Using Your G.I. Bill for further detail on what your benefits will and will not cover]
Be sure to fully explore the world of scholarships as you shop around for schools. Even small scholarships can add up, making a big difference in the total amount you pay (or don’t pay!) for your education.
Universities, military branches, private companies, non-profit foundations, and other benefactors offer a wide range of grants and educational gifts specifically for those who have served our nation or who are willing to commit to this service in the future. So too do schools, companies, organizations, public agencies, and even private citizens.
In most cases, this is money that you will never be asked to pay back, though you may be required to maintain certain eligibility requirements, including service commitments, academic standards and terms of conduct. Whatever scholarships you apply for — especially those offered through the military or individual branches of the U.S. armed forces — be sure that you’re aware in advance of any commitments connected to your award and that these are commitments you’re prepared to keep.
[Browse our directory of scholarships for veterans, active duty personnel, as well as for military spouses and children]
Other Scholarship Opportunities
In addition to your eligibility for military scholarships, your personal background and experience in other areas of life can qualify you for useful scholarships. Whether you’re a star athlete, an academic standout, a member of a unique cultural tradition, a spiritually observant student, an individual in need of economic assistance, or a hobbyist with a niche set of skills and interests, there may be a scholarship with your name on it.
The best way to improve your chances of earning scholarship money is to apply for as many awards and grants as you can. The eligibility requirements, application instructions, submission deadlines, and terms of commitment vary from one scholarship to another. But to determine how these conditions apply to each individual scholarship, you’ll need to do some research.
[Begin your exploration by taking a look at our Scholarship Directory]
Supplement with Private Loans
In addition to federal and state assistance, G.I. Bill benefits, and scholarships, you can finance your education by supplementing with private loans. This option is truly only recommended if you’ve exhausted all other sources of assistance. Though many students supplement federal or state aid with private loans, your G.I. Bill may provide enough additional assistance to forego this step.
In most cases, your terms of repayment will be less favorable with private loans than with federal or state loans. Private loans generally lack many of the protections that come with those provided through the federal government. These commercially advertised loans may sometimes (though not always) lack forbearance, deferment, and financial hardship protections. There is also no ceiling to interest charges, meaning the cost of repayment will likely be higher.
On the other hand, if you need further assistance paying for your education after exploring and leveraging your other options, private loans may be available. As with federal, state, and other types of financial aid, private loans typically demand that your online college of choice be accredited.
[For a fuller understanding of accreditation, and how you can distinguish valid accreditation associations from those that lack credibility, take a look at our comprehensive Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?]
If you do need to supplement federal, state, and G.I. Bill assistance with private funding, be sure that you shop around. Compare interest rate and repayment options to find a private loan that suits your educational and financial needs. And always be sure that you borrow from a reputable lender with a strong public track record.
Jump to SimpleTuition.com by Lending Tree for a look at some of the most competitive private student loan options.
Choose the Best School
Now that you know a bit more about financing your education, you’re ready to choose the best learning environment for you.
As noted in sections above, your school of choice must have proper accreditation to be eligible for federal or state aid, and often to receive private loans as well. This underscores the critical importance of accreditation as you look for the right online college, university, trade school, or certification program.
Accreditation is granted by accrediting agencies that are formally recognized by the Department of Education. Accreditation typically indicates that an institution is not only maintaining its standards but that it continues to make advances and remain current within its field. There are two important distinctions to remember as you search for colleges:
- There are two primary categories of accreditation: regional accreditation and national accreditation.
- Additionally, a stamp of accreditation may be granted to a college or university in its entirety (school-wide accreditation), or to a single degree program (programmatic accreditation).
Regional accreditation is generally considered the gold standard, especially when it comes to school-wide accreditation. As you look for an online college or university, look for the school-wide stamp of approval from one of these regional accreditors.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
The institutional accrediting sector is divided into regional and national accrediting agencies. Generally, regional accrediting agencies confer greater credibility and merit. When you’re investigating a college or university, you’ll want to look for the “stamp of approval” from one of the following regional accrediting agencies:
National accreditation can also be important when it comes to evaluating degree programs and departments. The level of importance depends largely on your professional goals. Some professional fields absolutely require that you have a degree from a program accredited by a qualified national accreditor. For instance, if you’re planning on becoming a public accountant or a professional engineer, your path to certification will likely demand a degree with valid programmatic accreditation.
However, national accreditation is a much broader field than regional accreditation, with a wider range of accreditation associations. These associations vary in discipline, quality, credibility, and legitimacy. Be sure to do your research, especially if you are entering into a field that will require a degree that is backed by valid programmatic accreditation.
The easiest and most reliable way to determine a school’s accreditation status is to take a look at the Department of Education’s database. This lists all Department-recognized accreditors, which indicates that your school or program is eligible to receive financial aid.
[For a fuller understanding of accreditation, and how you can distinguish valid accreditation associations from those that lack credibility, take a look at our comprehensive Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?]
Avoid “Degree Mills”
One of the reasons that accreditation is so important is because it can protect you from education companies offering low-quality degree or certification programs. While the growth of online colleges has created a wealth of accessible and affordable educational opportunities, the internet has also led to growing numbers of low-quality for-profit schools that operate without proper or meaningful accreditation.
Many of these “schools” offer flawed curriculum, under-qualified instructors, credits that won’t transfer to properly accredited colleges, and degrees that prospective employers may not take seriously. This is an especially important factor to consider if you’re planning on using your G.I. Bill to finance your education. While colleges and universities without accreditation are not eligible for federal or state financing, certain loopholes make it possible for these schools to accept G.I. funding.
As a result, many “degree mills” and otherwise disreputable online colleges prey on military veterans and their families through aggressive advertising and dishonest recruitment tactics.
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 G.I. Bill benefits.
However, there are still unique legal parameters surrounding the G.I. Bill that make it easier for these dishonest companies to take advantage of your funding. Therefore, it is extremely important that you make informed decisions and do your research as your consider prospective schools.
[Click here to learn how you can spot the differences between Online Colleges and Degree Mills.]
[Click here for tips on making sure you get the most value out of your G.I. Bill.]
[Click here for a Complete Guide on Using Your G.I. Bill.]
Find Affordable Schools
While you may have access to federal funding, G.I. benefits, and various scholarships, there are still limits to your funding. By contrast, there are few limits to what your education could cost you. Between rising tuition rates, graduate school commitments, and the fact that fewer students than ever before are graduating in less than six years, your education can become quite expensive.
Affordability is an important factor, even with consideration of your loans and benefits. You can visit our Complete Guide to Using Your G.I. Bill for details on how far your benefits are likely to go. As you shop for an online college or university, keep these benefits in mind.
While some of the most reputable and esteemed colleges or universities may be expensive, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a good education or a high-quality degree. In fact, degree mills and disreputable online colleges typically cost more and deliver less than online community colleges or public state universities. Moreover, your G.I. benefits have a lower ceiling when applied to private educational institutions, as opposed to public options. This means that your G.I. Bill will cover the total cost of tuition for a community or state school, whereas you will likely need to find ways to make up the cost difference for a costlier for-profit school.
As you consider the cost of your education, be sure to weigh it against the likely value you’ll receive for your investment. For detailed information about college costs, graduation data, and post-college earnings — all important indicators when evaluating the quality of your online college — check out the College Scorecard, a school-by-school assessment of college performance provided by the Department of Education.
[Visit our College Affordability Source for more tips and resources on making the most of your money as you transition into a degree or certification program.]
Consider Military Academies
If you are at the start of both your military career and your education, or you’ve completed a length of service and are now interested in studying to become a career officer in the military, you may want to consider a military academy. If you gain access into one of these highly-regarded institutions, you will likely receive a full scholarship, which can include funding for tuition, housing, books and even some living expenses.
There are two important factors to consider before you seek admission into a military academy. First and foremost, these are highly rigorous schools, which means that the competition for admission is fierce, as are the academic, physical and conduct standards you’ll be required to keep during your attendance. Second, admission to one of these academies typically comes with a service commitment of specified length and terms. Be sure that you are prepared to make this commitment before enrolling in a military academy.
[Click here for more details and a list of military academies for each branch of service.]
Find Military Friendly Schools
Whether you’re a veteran transitioning into an education or an aspiring cadet beginning both your training and your education at the college level, seek out a school that understands, addresses, and embraces military students. Look for colleges and universities that allow you to best capitalize on your G.I. benefits, that offer accelerated and part-time programs for working veterans, veterans services and centers, online scholarship options, credits for lifetime/military experience, strong ROTC programs, functional mental health support services, wide selections of entirely online programs, and significant populations of military students.
[Start with our list of The Best Online Colleges for Military Personnel & Families.]
Succeeding in Online College
Online college is different than the traditional classroom setting to which you may be accustomed. As an online student, you will often be working independently, keeping your own pace, and tracking your own progress. It can be helpful to consider these factors as you proceed:
- Set short- and long-term goals. Make daily to-do lists to stay on top of your daily reading and studying; create weekly and monthly goals for project completion; and always keep your eye on the bigger prize, whether your semester ends with a big exam, a major project, or even a certification or degree. Remain conscious of these major academic milestones and work toward them on a regular basis rather than waiting until the end of the semester to study, research, or write.
- Get Your Technology Up To Speed. As an online student, you’ll likely be learning through a combination of web-mediated models, including video conferencing, teleconferencing, and social media. You’ll need a reliable laptop or computer, a strong high-speed wireless connection and peripherals like a video camera, microphone, and noise-canceling headphones. A camera and microphone are typically included internally with most current computers and laptops. Be sure that your equipment is functional and reliable so that your education isn’t interrupted by machine failure or a lack of connectivity. Check out The Savvy Student’s Guide to Computers for College for help getting your technology college-ready.
- Count Your Credits. Be aware of how many credits you’ll need to graduate and keep an eye on that number as you go forward. Find out how many credits you’ll need to earn — as well as any necessary prerequisite classes you’ll need to take — in order to receive transcripts, declare a major, and graduate. You don’t want to find out that you’re short a few critical credits days before graduation. Make sure this is something you keep track of as you enroll in new courses each semester and keep your own count of credits at the end of every school year. Schools can make mistakes so it’s a good idea to keep your own record of completed credits, in the event that you ever need to present a case. If you’re not sure where your credit count stands, how to keep your own records, or how many credits you need in order to reach different academic milestones, reach out to your academic advisor.
These tips are really just the beginning. Adjusting to online college is an ongoing process, especially if you’re transitioning from life in the service.
[Click here for more tips on How Military Personnel Can Make the Most of Online College.]
[For more study and classroom tips, visit our Study Lounge.]
Get Academic Help
While the above tips can be helpful as you find your place in online college, you don’t have to do it all alone, nor should you. For many veterans, the strategies for learning and instruction — whether in a large lecture hall, a small intimate classroom, or through an online platform — are quite different than the strategies used to train for service. This means that you’ll need to adjust to your new surroundings.
Fortunately, there are a number of programs offered through the military that can help both prepare and support you in your studies:
- The Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) is a set of one- to two-week immersive workshops provided directly through the military. These programs, offered to you free-of-charge, are aimed at helping you prepare for your new academic environment. The WSP provides classroom “boot camps” (that teach you how to harness your service-driven leadership, adaptability, and problem-solving abilities for use in the classroom setting. You’ll also receive introductory instruction on analytic reading and college-level writing skills, a better understanding of the higher education landscape, and an introduction to the cultural challenges that await you in your transition. In many cases, you can complete this program on your college campus.
- The National Association of Veterans Upward Bound (NAVUB) is another valuable academic support resource for veterans, one that can help you channel your skills and interests into the right educational pursuit. This professional association — funded through the U.S. Department of Education — is dedicated to developing the personal potential of all veterans by helping to improve and extend educational opportunities. Eligible veterans will receive an academic needs assessment, instruction, enrichment, and access to other support activities. One of the best ways to ease the transition is to make informed decisions about your educational path. The NAVUB aims to help you do this.
- Student Veterans of America (SVA) provides peer-to-peer support to veterans attending colleges and graduate schools through campus chapters nationwide. Find out if your campus has a local SVA chapter to network with other service members and veterans working toward degrees or certifications, or help start a chapter on your campus.
You can also seek support directly through your campus. Visit your academic counselor, find out about opportunities for school-sponsored tutoring, or look for study groups to join.
Acclimating to Civilian Life
As a military service member or veteran, going to college is about more than just adapting to a new way of learning. It’s also about the more encompassing experience of adapting to civilian life. Your education and your life back home will bring a number of challenges, both practical and personal. From balancing education and work responsibilities to coping with cultural differences that can sometimes isolate you from classmates without a service background, making the transition both to college and to civilian life can be difficult.
[Click here to learn more about Transitioning from Military to Civilian Life.]
[And click here for tips on Transitioning from Military to College.]
Seek Mental Health Support
In addition to the practical challenges of acclimating to life at home and in school, service members and veterans face an elevated risk of mental health challenges including depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide.
If you are facing feelings of depression or anxiety, make mental health support an essential part of easing your transition to college. Reach out to the mental health support services available on your campus. But take note that some colleges and universities may be contending with shortages of mental health workers and resources, which can result in long wait times for appointments.
As a veteran, you have access to support services created to help you manage your experiences in the service and your challenges as a student. Begin by seeking support through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA makes available a host of resources that are designed to help military veterans cope with mental health challenges and transition into various dimensions of civilian life. Among them:
- Vet Centers provides readjustment counseling in or near your community. You are encouraged to contact Vet Centers through its Facebook Community page to initiate contact with a counselor in your region.
- VA Support for Alcohol and Drug Misuse, contained within the Veterans Health Administration, offers confidential screening, and provides you with a locator for VA Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Treatment Programs.
- Give An Hour (GAH) — in partnership with the University of Phoenix — provides counseling to transitioning vets. According to GAH: “since 2005, Give an Hour has focused on providing free mental health care to active duty, National Guard, and Reserve service members, veterans, and their families.”
- Veterans Crisis Line puts you in immediate contact with
qualified Veterans Affairs responders, trained to understand the mental health challenges unique to veterans
undergoing readjustment. Responders are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year.
All calls, chats and text messages are confidential, and support is available immediately. Support is also available for deaf or hearing impaired individuals.
Veterans Crisis Line advises that if you experience any difficulty connecting by phone with live support, contact them through text or chat.
[Return to Military Education Headquarters]
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