It’s back-to-school season – but not just for kids. We all understand that change is a constant in military life. Going back to school can be a major life transition, no matter what your age. Whether you are 18 or 55, a residential full-time student, or a working adult taking classes part-time online, college can be a place where you assume new roles, routines, relationships; develop new parts of your identity; and find yourself in new settings with exciting possibilities.
A college degree can improve lifetime earnings and help minimize the risk of unemployment, which can be a major concern for military spouses. In 2014 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 3.2 percent of undergraduate degree holders were unemployed, versus 4.5 percent of associate degree holders, and 6.0 percent of those with just a high school diploma. With a professional or doctoral degree, the unemployment rate dropped to around 2.1 percent.
Regardless of your reasons for going back to school, deciding how much to pay and choosing where to get a college education should not be taken lightly. Therefore, there are a few things you should first consider before you decide
- What are my goals?
Take the time to identify what makes you tick, and why. True personal growth and good decision-making comes from first understanding what makes you who you are and how you make sense of the world around you. Many prospective students with whom I work don’t necessarily know where to begin. The feelings of self-doubt are actually common as going back to school can be quite different in comparison to normal, everyday stressors.
So, where do you begin? One of the best places to start is through a career zone web site or a self-assessment inventory. Most universities offer these inventories through their career services departments. These assessments are not foolproof, but they do help jumpstart the inner conversation you should have with yourself about how to best combine your interests with a potential career and the education it may take to get there.
- Is now the right time to go back to school?
For many, going back to school is all about timing. Do you have control over issues in your life that could prevent you from making the time necessary to go back to school? Identifying issues early on and developing strategies to mitigate them can be major factors for future success. For example, will your spouse deploy soon? Who would watch the kids if you took face-to-face classes? Setting up childcare or, better yet, taking an online class could be the best strategy
- Is it worth the cost?
Make sure you have thoroughly explored your financing options. Tuition can greatly differ between institutions and knowing the overall cost will better help you succeed. Organizations like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provide online calculators that allow you to compare the tuition and fees of different colleges. Once you’ve chosen a school, make sure you connect with the financial aid department to get guidance and explanations of the benefits available from Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA), VA benefits, student loans, grants, and scholarships. If you are currently employed be sure to check if your employer offers a tuition reimbursement program.
- Will I be able to balance life/family/work with school?
In order to truly gauge whether or not you can balance everything on your plate depends a great deal on the type of support you have. At times we are all guilty of taking on more than we can handle, but properly planning for those events in advance and getting your friends, family, or caregivers on board for support will make a big difference.
Make a list of people in your life – friends, family, acquaintances, etc. How would they affect your decision? Are they cheerleaders for your success or could they possibly be toxic?
- What method suits me best?
A recent higher education journal article stated there were over 10,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone. To complicate matters further, they range from two-year technical schools to four-year liberal arts colleges.
The one thing I recommend as a military spouse is to pick a university that understands how to serve the military and can cater to your needs. Will you move often? Perhaps an online program is the best way to go. Will you need clinical hours or a certification for your degree plan? Look at a whether or not a university has established networks in the community that can help you achieve what you need.
Finally, make sure you check what type of accreditation the college and program (if applicable) has before you sign up for classes. If you are unsure of the differences in accreditation make sure you do your research.
- Am I motivated enough to commit?
As with any big decision, returning to school is most successful when there is strong motivation, which can largely depend on having the time, energy, and resources necessary to commit.
Do you need someone to talk to? Seek out friends and family members who have been through the experience for their stories. Reach out to your local military education center counselors or college academic advisors to help you make an informed decision.
A unique resource for the military community can be found at eMentor.org, which connects military personnel, veterans, and spouses with mentors who can guide and encourage you towards success in your career and education goals.
There are many resources out there, and knowledge is power. Know that you are not alone in your academic pursuits – all you need to do is reach out and take action.