College 101 Service Members
Stars and Stripes | .
published: August 23, 2016
Editor’s note: Tyler Hlavac is an active-duty Marine and full-time dad assigned to Stars and Stripes’ Yokosuka Bureau. He has been attending classes regularly at University of Maryland University College’s Yokosuka Campus for the past year and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communications.
There are a lot of benefits to being a servicemember, but it’s possible you’re not taking advantage of one of the best: tuition assistance. I’m talking about free money.
Tuition assistance (TA) is provided to servicemembers through the Department of Defense to help cover the cost of school. It’s not a loan and it comes with very few stipulations, yet it often seems like many servicemembers don’t use it.
There are a multitude of reasons for not pursuing an education, some good and some bad. Some servicemembers have intense jobs that don’t leave many hours for school and others have large families and simply cannot devote the time. However, I’ve heard a few pretty weak excuses for not going to school. Visit any base general recreation center and you will see plenty of servicemembers aimlessly surfing Facebook or binge-watching reruns of television shows.
While some leaders do a good job of encouraging their juniors to pursue educational opportunities, others don’t mention school at all. Even worse, I’ve unfortunately encountered a few leaders who actively discouraged attending school for various reasons.
Going to class can be intimidating, whether you are a 19-year-old junior servicemember or a senior leader in your 30s or older. Educating yourself about your options beforehand can make starting school a less intimidating endeavor. It’s hard work and you may not always get the best encouragement, but keep in mind it’s your future you are working for. For me, the thought of my own future and my family’s future keeps me motivated. Going to school allows me to be a better provider for my family down the road and allows me to leave my GI Bill untouched and pass it on to my son to secure his eventual college education. No one else can create a better future for you. The best way to get started is simply to start.
For servicemembers, the topic of attending college while on active duty is somewhat common. College is brought up even before attending basic training, as recruiters often use the TA program as a selling point for potential applicants. A lot of information about the GI Bill is presented during basic training and, generally, every substantial military base has an education center and even satellite college offices.
However, this information can often be very broad or vague and sometimes doesn’t cover the most basic questions in the simplest way. How much does school cost? What can I go to school for? What does TA cover? Do I have time to go to school while serving in the military? These are some of the important questions that servicemembers should consider before beginning their journey as an active-duty college student.
OK, so you know you should go to school and you want to go to school, but you’re not sure what you want to study. This dilemma is actually pretty common for a lot of servicemembers. There is no 100-percent correct way to address this issue, but there are a few things that can help you decide what major to pursue.
First, what interests you? It’s important that you pick a degree you are at least somewhat interested in, otherwise you will likely spend the next four years being pretty miserable.
Something else to consider is pursuing a degree that you can pair with your military occupational specialty. For example, I am in a public affairs military occupational specialty and am currently working toward a degree in communications. A military policeman might want to pursue a degree in criminal justice.
There are a couple of different benefits to this approach, the biggest being that you can leave the military not only with a degree in hand, but with years of experience.
Another benefit is that military occupational specialty training can be applied toward college credit. For example, I attended the basic public affairs specialist class at the Defense Information School where we covered writing, photography and layout and design. As a result of attending the course, I received college credits for journalism, news writing and graphic design. Because of this and the other training I did in the military, I had a third of my degree already finished without taking any college courses.
If you still aren’t completely sure about a major, don’t worry. All degrees have general education requirements that need to be satisfied. For example, I have to take classes in math, history and information technology even though they have little to do with my major or job.
You can always pick a tentative degree and focus on completing your general education requirements first before moving on to your core classes. This will give you time to think about the type of degree you want. It’s possible you might take a general education class that you really enjoy, such as math, that will make you decide to change your major to that subject.
Even if you opt to leave the military after your first enlistment and don’t finish your degree, you will have a good start if you choose to attend college later. Additionally, if you are positive you only want to stay in the military for four years, you can always pursue an associate degree, which is far easier to obtain during a single enlistment, and it will still be covered by the TA program. While an associate degree is not as advanced as a bachelor’s, it will still put you ahead of those who have no post-secondary education. If you know you want to be in the military long-term (10 years or more), you may want to consider a master’s degree, which can also be covered by the TA program.
Regardless of how long you plan to be in the military or what degree you want, you can still accomplish academic goals on the military’s dime and make yourself more competitive in the civilian job market. Even taking just a few classes is a form of self-improvement that can help you receive better evaluations and give you a leg up on your military peers who do not.
After you decide what degree you want to pursue, the next thing you should do is decide what school to attend. The first factor to consider is whether or not the school has a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defense. A school has to have this memorandum, otherwise a servicemember cannot use TA.
You also need to find a school that offers the degree you want while fitting within the amount of TA you are offered. Each service has a cap on how much you can spend per credit hour and how much you can spend per year. This is generally $250 per credit hour and $4,500 per year. If the school you are looking at charges more than $250 per credit hour, TA won’t pay for it.
Next, do you want to take online classes or attend face-to-face classes? Personally, I think the best option for a servicemember just starting college is to attend a college located on base and take a few face-to-face classes. Some servicemembers prefer online classes because of their availability and the flexibility to take them without having to go to a classroom. The downside of online classes is that you miss out on a lot of instruction from the teacher and networking with fellow students who can help you with your work.
Colleges located on base work with servicemembers regularly and have a good grasp on your paperwork requirements and work schedules. Their classes are tailored to servicemembers and the costs all fit within the DOD’s TA requirements. These on-base schools are ideal for beginners and are a good place to at least get a start on your general education requirements.
TA is a benefit provided by the DOD to help pay for college. Generally, every active-duty servicemember is eligible for it. The DOD has some guidelines for TA, namely that schools have a memorandum of understanding with the DOD, but each service has its own unique requirements.
For example, the Marine Corps requires, among other things, a minimum time in service of 24 months per active duty base date and the completion of the Marine Corps Institute Personal Financial Management course. The Navy requires that sailors have not received a non-judicial punishment in the last six months and have served at least one year in their first duty station.
All of the services have some sort of general grade requirement as well. If you end a class below a certain grade, such as a “C,” you have to pay back the money you received for that class.
The amount of TA offered each fiscal year may not seem like much, but $4,500 can actually go a long way if you pick the right school. For example, the University of Maryland University College, located on many military bases, charges $221 per credit hour, or roughly $663 per class (most classes, with a few exceptions, are three credit hours). This means TA will fully pay for six classes per year and approximately two-thirds of a seventh class.
Assuming you don’t want to go out of pocket and want to use as much of your benefits as possible, this means TA will pay for a UMUC student to take at least one class per semester, and one semester you can take two classes (UMUC has five semesters in a year). This is a fairly substantial course load for a working servicemember; two classes at one time is considered “full-time student” status by UMUC.
Most servicemembers I talk to have their hands full balancing their job and just one class at a time. TA also allows you to obtain your degree without touching your GI Bill, which means you can pass it on to a spouse or child.
College can be a serious time commitment for active-duty servicemembers. This depends on both the courses you choose and how many you are taking per semester. As mentioned, a two-class commitment is considered “full time” by many schools, so balancing two classes at once and a full-time job is tricky.
Individual courses tend to become more difficult the higher level they are. A level 400 class is generally harder than a level 100 class, for example, but even classes of the same level can vary. I took a Psychology 100 class that only required one to two hours of work outside the classroom each week. On the flipside, I took a Math 103 class that required five to seven hours of homework each week.
A common syllabus guideline I’ve seen in many of my classes is that students should expect to spend two to three hours of reading, studying or doing homework for every one hour they spend in class. Although I can’t say I’ve spent that much time doing schoolwork, it is a useful guideline to keep in mind.
I would recommend only taking one class at a time for your first two or three semesters and then trying two classes if you feel you can handle it. Even with one class, don’t expect to have your entire weekend free. A lot of your time will be spent doing schoolwork. Fortunately, most schools have semester breaks, so you will get time off periodically throughout the year.
There are a lot of benefits to going to college, beyond just obtaining a degree. Having off-duty education looks great on servicemembers’ evaluations.
I’ve personally found that just going to school and taking classes has kept my brain engaged and has stimulated my desire to learn, which has had positive effects on my job performance.
Balancing work, school and family life has also greatly improved my time-management skills and I feel I waste less time each day. Staying busy with school has also had a positive effect on my bank account. As I’ve had less free time, I’ve spent less time aimlessly shopping or sitting in bars or restaurants.
School has also been a great opportunity for me to network and to meet new people each semester. Everywhere I go on base I constantly run into former classmates. The overall best benefit of going to college is investing in one’s future.
Whether you spend four or 30 years in the military, everyone must eventually leave and seek outside employment. Separating from the military with a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree will help you secure a solid post-military career.