Stephen Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” said it best: “Begin with the end in mind.” Being a military spouse who started college in 1999, achieving graduation day is one of the most highly anticipated “ends” of my life.
In the past, military spouses were told that it was impossible to pursue their own aspirations with the demands of military life. Today, so many resources exist from public and private organizations that it’s no longer impossible to balance a course schedule in between moves, deployments and life just happening.
But you have to know where to find those resources and how to achieve that balance. In the 13 years that I have juggled school and military life, I’ve learned many lessons that could have gotten that degree in my hand much sooner.
Whether you are considering starting school for the first time or going back to finish a degree you started, you can set yourself up for success by outlining what type of school would best fit your educational goals, creating a school schedule that works with the challenges military life offers, researching accreditations, and evaluating various types of funding offered for military spouses.
I know: That sounds like a lot to handle. It isn’t easy, I’ll freely admit. But the decision to pursue post-secondary education can change your life. It affects your entire family because of the financial and time commitment, and also because it can open all kinds of new doors for you.
No matter what else is going on in your life (and I promise you, a lot of “what else’s” have unfolded in my life over the past 13 years), you can set a goal, create a plan, and work toward that objective for your individual self-worth.
By utilizing the installation education centers, evaluating your current life demands and effectively managing your time, it is possible to start and finish your education in a reasonably timely manner.
Finding a School That Fits Your Needs
Where will your pursuit of a degree begin? That depends not only on location and tuition, but on your schedule. When you’re deciding to commit to a particular school, you have to be realistic about the level of commitment you can give. In a perfect world, taking a full course-load semester after semester to finish a degree in four years is a nice thought. But if it’s not possible, don’t let that stop you from enrolling. Instead:
Forecast the responsibilities you’ll have on your plate (childcare? a part-time or full-time job?) that might interfere with studying, homework and classes. The general rule for professors is that a student needs to have six to nine hours per week to devote to their studies. If you have a family, job, or are juggling the demands of deployment, this may be unrealistic. Factor in what life will look like throughout that entire semester before choosing how many credits to pursue. When you over-commit, it can lead to class withdrawals … which can mean lost money and time.
Ask yourself: Would online or traditional courses work best for you? Some students love the flexibility of online courses, but they require efficiency and strong time management skills. The experience of sitting in a traditional classroom may fit your learning style better than self-teaching on the computer. Make a list of pros and cons of online versus in-person. Once you decide, you can begin searching for a school that offers your desired curriculum through that medium.
Create a list of what you’re looking for in a school. Some schools offer a more military-friendly environment than others. Evaluate cost, programs offered, methods of teaching, and eligibility for transferring credits if your service member receives Permanent Change of Station orders.
Search online to find out more about the schools that might interest you. The interactive tools at MilitaryFriendlySchools.com can help spouses and service members create a list of schools that fit their personal preferences.
Planning For Those Military Moves: An SOC Agreement Can Help
You will move. There is no escaping the impending adventures of a new duty station. So it’s best to plan for it.
Being able to transfer course credits is a top concern of spouses who are students. When you go from one institution to another, it’s likely that all of your courses may not go with you. Yes, that means more costs and more time spent re-taking classes you may have already finished.
If you choose to attend a school that is listed in the SOC (Servicemembers’ Opportunity College) consortium, you have the peace of mind that the college or university has pledged to have “f lexible policies that allow mobile service members and their families to complete degrees rather than just accumulate course credit.”
SOC was created in 1972 to assist service members and their families with post-secondary education. Currently, it has over 1,900 institutions in its consortium. Find out if schools you’re considering offer an agreement at www.soc.aascu.org
Is It a “Good” School? Not All Accreditation Is Created Equal
Accreditation is a review of the quality of the education offered by an institution or program. Within the United States, there are regional accreditations and national ones.
Understanding the different types is very important to figuring out the value of education you are paying for; just because a school has some type of accreditation, does not mean that the degree or certification will be worth something to the potential employers when you job-hunt.
Tim Willard, senior director of communications for the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), explains the three main reasons that it’s important to attend a school with proper rankings:
Employers ask if a college, university or program is accredited before deciding to provide tuition assistance to current employees, evaluating the credentials of new employees, or making a charitable contribution.
The federal government requires that a college, university or program be accredited in order to be eligible for federal grants and loans or other federal funds.
State governments require that a college, university, or program be accredited when they make state funds available to students or institutions and when they allow students to sit for state licensing exams in some professional fields.
Willard’s organization, CHEA, only recognizes U.S. accrediting organizations that meet their standards. You can review their database to see if schools you’re considering have the proper credentials at www.chea.org/search/default.asp. Or check out the Department of Education’s list at www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation.
Finding the Money: Financial Aid and More
Ugh. Money. Even if we can find study time in our schedules and manage school alongside all our other responsibilities, for many of us the biggest obstacle to an advanced degree is money.
Aside from tuition, students may get hit with the cost of textbooks, administrative fees, transportation and childcare. But there are options (besides winning the next Powerball drawing). Grants, scholarships and student loans are out there. But you must do your homework to understand the funding options that are available. Here’s a brief rundown…
MyCAA: If you are the spouse of a service member ranked E1-E5, W1-W2, or O1-O2, you may be eligible for a $4,000 tuition assistance stipend to help pay for classes that will lead to a certification, licensure, or associate degree.
Branch Aid Societies: Each military branch has an aid society that offers funding for education. Details vary, so you’ll have to research whether your branch gives grants for overseas spouses only, scholarships for all spouses, or interest-free loans.
Learn more here:
• Air Force Aid Society: www.afas.org
• Army Emergency Relief: www.aerhq.org
• Coast Guard Mutual Assistance: www.cgmahq.org
• Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society: nmcrs.org
Scholarships: Throughout the year, local Spouses’ Clubs will offer scholarships to both officer and enlisted spouses. Get in touch with your local club to find out application openings and deadlines. The majority of Spouses’ Clubs require an essay, references and a formal application.
Grants: Always, always fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The federal Pell Grant helps hundreds of thousands of students every year. It helps with costs for education up to a bachelor’s degree, but not a master’s and beyond. The FAFSA must be filled out in order to obtain any federal aid, including student loans. (Learn more at www.fafsa.ed.gov)
Student Loans: Two types of loans exist: subsidized and unsubsidized. Interest accrues on both types of loans while you’re in school, but the main difference is this: The federal government pays the interest on subsidized federal loans while you’re enrolled in school at least half-time and during the grace period for some subsidized loans. You’re responsible for the interest accruing on unsubsidized loans no matter what your enrollment status is.
5 Tips for Making the Leap
Alison Hansen, military base manager of Thomas Edison State College and a military spouse, shares the inside scoop.
1) General Studies
If you don’t know what you want to do, start taking general courses. These courses are the most likely to transfer and who knows… you may stumble upon a subject you’d like to pursue further.
2) Do your own research
Do not choose your school because “everyone else goes there.” There may be a better program available for what you personally want to do.
3) School Analysis
Look at the big picture when deciding on a school: The cost per credit hour may be lower at a particular school, but how many credits are you going to need to complete? What is the residency requirement? What other fees may pop up? Will you need to re-apply (incurring additional fees) if you need to take a break and skip a semester?
If you’re enrolled in a school already, ask if they will accept CLEP (clep.collegeboard. org/military) or DSST (getcollegecredit.com/ testprep) exams. These are subject-specific exams that can earn you between 3-6 credits per exam. Study guides are available online and in most base libraries. These can save you time AND money.
5) Think Outside the Box
Students enrolled in an online degree program are not necessarily tied to a computer. Ask your advisor if courses offered on base or at a local community college can transfer toward your degree. This allows you to get out and meet people while working toward a degree that can PCS.
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