Returning Troops & the Transition Back to School

President Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address expressed a desire to bring home 34,000 American troops currently serving in Afghanistan over the next year; 80% of citizens agree this undertaking is necessary. Thanks to the GI Bill, the men and women returning to the United States will be able to transition into civilian life a little more smoothly, including earning secondary education.

Even before this declaration, veterans began enrolling in college and university programs in droves. The 2011 National Survey by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that a total of 923,836 troops took advantage of the education program's perks. This marked an uptick from 2010's 800,369, which also increased from 564,487 the previous year.

It stands to reason that the ones set to return over the next year will likely consider higher education an appealing option as well, filling programs offered both online and off. And with the Post-9/11 GI Bill now providing living stipends for students opting for Internet-based courses and degree programs, colleges and universities are even more accessible to veterans than they ever were before.

Why Online Really Is an Option

Jennifer Connors, Director of Military Services at George Mason University in Virginia, praises the Post-9/11 GI Bill for its comparative fluidity and for offering aspirant students more options. "[It] really does allow for transitioning veterans to choose the education path that best suits their needs. And for some of those individuals, a traditional brick-and-mortar university isn't a pathway to success,” she said. "It's going to be an online degree program, because those have the schedules which allow the flexibility to work full-time to support your family and pursue higher education.”

"In the military culture and environment, a lot of professional military education is done in computer-based learning modules so a significant portion of our core ancillary training requirements in the military are computer-based training modules,” Connors explained. "So I think it's very accessible and very equivalent to what we experience in active-duty military.”

Since so many returning troops must balance spouses, children, jobs, and major life expenses, the digital classroom offers up an excellent education in the most time-efficient, cost-effective environment. Michael Voris, an admissions counselor at University of Alaska Fairbanks specializing in helping veterans transition, also believes more homecoming troops will lead to more pursuing online degrees thanks to these perks.

"When I speak with prospective active military students, their most common question is, 'Can I complete that degree online?' With their work schedules, very demanding jobs, and common geographical challenges, online education becomes more and more attractive, and it's our responsibility and privilege to facilitate that,” he said.

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A Different Kind of Student

"To begin, the truth is that more than 1 million — as opposed to 34,000 — service members will leave the military over the next five years. This certainly creates an opportunity for online degree program,” said Syracuse University's, in New York, Mike Haynie, founder and executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and a former Air Force officer.

"Veterans are non-traditional students. For example, they are more likely than their non-veteran peers to be married, have children, and also to hold down a job while going to school. For these reasons, the flexibility inherent in online programs is well-suited to the situation of many veterans,” he added. "One of the great advantages that veterans have with regard to an educational setting, is based on their dynamic and accelerated life experiences.”

But the characteristics smoothing the move from military to school still come packaged with their own drawbacks. "This also can serve to create a situation where they don't feel like they 'fit in' with their non-veteran peers, whose life experiences are less robust,” cautioned Haynie. "Online learning environments serve to mitigate this challenge. Further, veterans adapt to online environments well, given the fact that military culture instills discipline and planning behaviors — attributes essential to success in an online learning environment.”

Regardless of whether or not they select an online or a traditional brick-and-mortar institution, veterans begin class with a unique set of circumstances that make transitioning a challenge.

Although Connors acknowledges that all students, regardless of their backgrounds and degree plans, grapple against motivation and balancing their lives, she does believe these to be particularly prevalent amongst returning military personnel. As a result, the concentration required to follow a degree to completion is something these students must tackle before it causes academic problems. "The degree path and the course of action a student takes define the problem,” said Connors. "For instance, at an online institution — it's going to be persistence.”

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Transitioning to the Lifestyle of an Online Student

"I think a significant amount of veterans that are going to be transitioning out of the military are going to have responsibilities beyond that of what a traditional freshman would have,” she continued. "A lot of the online programs offer those 18-month programs, but the assumption is that it's going to be easy. And it's not. It's going to be labor-intensive … especially in those more consolidated-length programs. I think that's going to be difficult, to find that balance.”

Moving from the highly regimented situation to one with far more freedom and permissiveness also overwhelms returning troops, complicating the settling process.

"When you're in the military, there is an instruction or a regulation or a manual for everything. There is something that tells you exactly what to do and tell you how to do it and a checklist … to ensure that you're doing what you need to do,” said Connors. "When you're out of the military, you don't have that. There's no checkbox to life so when you're brought up and groomed in a culture that inhibits that free thinking, then that's a big, big transition.”

Voris stresses the fiscal challenges. "Many active military members have fairly rigid work schedules while in the military, so the flexibility of then becoming a full-time college student can be both liberating and challenging,” he said. "The financial side of college can be more challenging to arrange for military and veteran students because there are more steps involved.

"Because active military and veteran students are a unique and important part of our student body, we try to treat them that way without making them feel marginalized,” he says. "Also, I think it's important that students have an awareness of the challenges that come with completing college courses online—some students tend to think that they might be easier than traditional in-person courses.”

To Haynie, most of the problems faced by returning veterans are systemic. Both society and the institutions involved need to start caring about and addressing their unique struggles in order to create truly equitable educational spaces. "Inherent in the secondary education system in the U.S. are people, systems and processes positioned to assist college-bound, high school students to make well-informed choices with regard to the pursuit of higher-education,” he said. "Importantly, this robust infrastructure is practically inaccessible to military veterans.

"The increasingly large universe of choices available to veterans with regard to paths into higher-education, coupled with the disparate nature of the institutions participating in the GI Bill program, highlights the need for a rigorous and robust system to prepare veterans to make informed choices about how, where, and when they will leverage GI Bill benefits,” Haynie said.

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Choosing a Major

When it comes to selecting the major that works best for them, veterans utilize the exact same blend of self-analysis and formulating solid career goals as anyone else. They have unique circumstances while adjusting to online and traditional classrooms; in no way does that translate to being inherently suited to particular degree plans.

"The highest concentration [of George Mason University veterans] is in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences,” said Connors, adding that any major works just fine — especially since students taking advantage of the GI Bill must make a decision on the government's timeline.

"We don't have room for failure. There's no second chances when you're coming out of the military and into a degree plan … But you're put in a situation where the Post-9/11 GI Bill requires you to declare a degree plan after two semesters,” described Connors. "You cannot be undeclared and use your Post-9/11 GI Bill for a long period of time. So you really have to declare a major.”

Additionally, Voris is a supporter of veteran students taking full advantage of colleges' career services offices and academic advising centers, which can really help students narrow down their potential major of choice.

"At the end of the day, I advise students to pursue their passion — the subject that makes them want to do the work for a class — rather than choosing a program based on perceptions of future income or other factors,” Voris said.

Haynie echoed the same sentiments.

"We shouldn't be talking about where a veteran 'fits' with regard to linking a particular academic major, to their military vocation. Instead, we should be giving veterans the same advice we give anyone pursing higher education; that is, pursue your passion,” he said. "Don't let someone tell you what you should do just because it might relate to what you did in the military. While this might be one factor in the decision-making process, in the end choices related to both academic major and institution should be more holistic and motivated by future-focused goals and aspirations, as opposed to singularly tied to their military experience.”

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Vow to Hire Heroes Act

Initiatives such as the Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 might impact the major-related decisions of veteran students between the ages of 35 and 60. This legislation targets unemployed former military personnel desiring an associate's degree or non-credit certification, paying for a year of community college or technical school. But training must lead them towards a career in one of 211 most-needed positions and industries, like construction management, electrician, and more. Vow to Hire Heroes may not influence the degree plan choices of most veterans, but the promise of tuition reimbursement and jobs after completing a program could push some undecided students towards pursuing particular majors and career paths.

Shifting between the heavily regimented military lifestyle to the relatively freeform college and university environment can be incredibly jarring to returning veterans. Regardless of whether or not they elect for an online or offline degree, they experience stressors their peers could never fathom. Schools need to start paying attention to what these students require and take pains to ensure the transition occurs as smoothly as possible.

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