Jeffrey Anderson earned a degree in English from V.M.I. As an officer in the Marine Corps, he became an expert in the benefits available to active-duty service members, veterans and dependents. He now works as a freelance researcher and writer specializing in higher education for military veterans.
Ron retired with 36 years of military service. His assignment as Supervisor of Military Personnel Services (including the Education Benefits Section) provided him with a wealth of knowledge, training and experience working with the GI Bills, scholarships, grants and loans for post-secondary education. His last assignment was the 34th Infantry (Red Bull) Division Command Sergeant Major/E-9.
Since people began taking classes over great expanses by traditional mail, distance education has provided a way to connect students with instructors. Limited in scale and depth, online instruction began among only a few schools in the 1980s, but today has developed into a formal educational option for millions of students.By 2012 nearly 7 million students took at least one college course over the internet.
The flexibility of taking accredited courses at their own time and location has made online learning a solid option for students in the military on deployment or re-stationing. Service members and vets can complete degree programs for advancement or transitions to civilian life no matter where they are in the world. But in evaluating online colleges for military personnel, it’s vital to explore the kinds of institutions available as well as how they support students participating in the Yellow Ribbon, GI Bill and other military education programs.
Veterans, active military and eligible family members can gather specific insight into distance learning and military online colleges in the following comprehensive guidebook, prepared with service personnel in mind.
Attending traditional brick and mortar colleges, universities and trade schools is problematic and impractical for active military personnel. Deployment and re-stationing are facts of life. Constant relocation and transferring from local college to local college can increase time to graduation by several years since transfer students run the risk of losing credits and having to take the same classes over at their new destinations. Institutional members of the Service Member’s Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium help students retain course credits when transferring to participating schools. However, military students may find that online learning programs move directly with service members when they change locales, preserving their credits and student status without interruption.
The flexibility of a distance learning program allows students access no matter their time zone or assignment. The online college website provides round-the-clock access to classes, research libraries and all related class materials. Consequently, active military, veterans and qualified dependents can complete post-secondary degree programs without traveling to campus. The service branches operate online portals that allow personnel to search for military online colleges, evaluate degree options and request Tuition Assistance Top-Up, Tuition Assistance and guidance. For example, the GoArmyEd website offers service members access to Military Education Counselors as well as a paperless, virtual registration system available to Army personnel around the globe.
Two major delivery systems govern the classes in military online colleges: asynchronous and synchronous.
Synchronous courses take place in “real-time,” requiring students to log on to their classes at a pre-arranged day and time. These are less flexible in scheduling because the learning system requires students and faculty to meet virtually through tools such as direct-broadcast satellite, video conferencing, live streaming lectures and discussions and internet radio. Software such as Skype, Citrix GoToMeeting and Adobe Connect has connected military personnel and veterans to live classes without undue technological issues.
The other delivery system, “asynchronous,” offers the greatest amount of student flexibility over great distances. Students log on at their convenience, participating in class through 24/7 discussion boards, email, multimedia presentations and podcasts. The coursework is as rigorous as campus-based or synchronous learning, making it a necessity for students to maintain an education routine to keep pace. But the benefits of the asynchronous delivery format have made it the preferred system for active military and veterans alike.
Some 47 percent of veterans taking online courses are married with children and work at full-time jobs or as stay-at-home parents. Parents find time after their kids go to sleep to hit the online classroom or at breaks during the day. Employed veterans appreciate the opportunity to train for career advancement by logging on before or after work, or during the weekends.
The transition from combat to the classroom can be intolerable following war-zone service and multiple deployments. A 2008 RAND study reported that 20 percent of veterans returning from the Iraq/Afghanistan region have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They are unwilling to submerse themselves in a college campus setting with loud noises and throngs of students, many younger than they are. Unlike war veterans with PTSD in previous decades, today’s veterans have the option of attending classes and completing degrees from their homes.
Whether a student is attending campus degree program or one of the online colleges for military personnel, they are responsible for maintaining regular study habits, progressing through their courses and meeting all of their class deadlines. Online students may have to ramp up their focus, especially in remaining motivated to master class materials as well as the delivery system used in the virtual classroom. Students working online tend to require less hand-holding and are typically highly disciplined. Service personnel and veterans should examine the following attributes of successful online students before making the leap to distance learning:
Chances are good that any potential online student reading this article already has baseline skills in online technology. They know how to search, use a browser, create documents in a word processing program and find their way around a spreadsheet. Skills in technical degree programs may have to learn or improve their abilities with dedicated design or drafting software. Many online schools have course demos and lists of technology requirements. Be sure to test drive a demo to see if the interface is easy to use.
Entering college for the first time or returning to school following a long hiatus presents challenges to even the best of students. Learning to balance work, family life and a realistic dedication to completing studies is a key to success. Organizational skills are essential components to making it all work.
Creating a schedule and sticking to it is an indispensable attribute to success. While asynchronous courses may mean each student tackles the material at a different place and time, they all must still tackle the material! Couse attendance may be flexible, but the deadlines for delivering papers, taking tests and completing assignments are firm. It can be easy to fall behind when you don’t have to report to a seat in a classroom. Routine and constant check-ins with email, online discussion boards and faculty course pages is not only recommended, but required. Educators often grade on participation.
Military-friendly colleges may go above and beyond to help both active duty and veteran students transition into a higher education setting. This could mean support of an academic, social or financial nature. Many schools with fully online programs fall into this category, making it much easier for past and present military members to learn in a flexible, remote environment. Prospective students evaluating online degree programs should ask questions of each school related to five key considerations:
Active duty and veteran students should determine whether their prospective schools take part in the Principles of Excellence (POE) program established in April 2012 by Executive Order 13607. Under the guidelines, each school must:
The Department of Veteran’s Affairs hosts Weam’s School Search, an interactive search created for students who prefer to find POE schools. Search fields include search by state, search by program type, institution name and whether the institution is a Yellow Ribbon School. Schools with more than one campus can be further searched by location. A POE participation agreement should appear on the program page.
It’s essential that service personnel to choose an online school and a degree program that’s recognized by employers. Students planning to go on to additional higher education need to be equally confident that their undergraduate credits and degrees will be accepted at colleges across the country. VA approval and proper school accreditation are vitally important for students going to school under support of the GI Bill.
An accredited online school with VA approval means students can pay for their education with the GI Bill and that the school’s accreditation certifies:
Students can search for accreditations and VA approvals for individual schools that they’re considering at the Weam’s School Search Tool. For those searching a wider area than a single school can choose a state to round up a list of prospective schools. Each school listing links to “Programs” and provides details on the courses under the “Institution of Higher Learning” link. Students can use contact information for the school to inquire into the curriculum and requirements of the degree program.
Examine the tuition rates at each prospective, VA-approved school. Fees are typically higher at private institutions and for out-of-state students. To receive the best tuition coverage, students should look at public schools in their own state. Post 9/11 GI Bill tuition payment tops out at the current tuition rate for state residents at approved schools. The available tuition payment for education at private schools is capped at $21,084.89 for 2015/2016. A veteran receiving support under The Montgomery GI Bill must pay tuition and materials/books/fees out of the total grant.
One way students can up their degree completion process is to transfer credits that they earned in the service in the form of military training, technical schools and duty. Not all institutions accept credit, but the military friendly schools on the VA approval list do. Military job descriptions for warrant officers, enlisted personnel, and a limited number of officer roles are translated to college-credit values by The American Council on Education (ACE). The ACE guide is continually updated to reflect the nature of knowledge and experience related to military occupations and training courses.
For example, in looking at converting experience to credits, there’s the ACE guide of the 11B Infantryman MOS job description (stateside):“Leads, supervises and serves as a member of an infantry unit of 10-20 persons, employing individual weapons, machine guns and anti-armor weapons in offensive and defensive ground combat.”
ACE specialists review the MOS and create skill level summaries. An E-6 level summary, for example, states that:
“Able to perform the duties required for Skill Level 20; as a first-line supervisor, directs the utilization of personnel and equipment; coordinates unit actions with adjacent and supporting elements; insures proper collection and reporting of intelligence data.”
Next, ACE sets a credit recommendation for the skill level. In this case, the credit evaluation reads:
“In the vocational certificate category, three semester hours in mechanical maintenance. In the lower-division baccalaureate/associate degree category, one semester hour in map reading, one in first aid, two in record keeping, three in personnel supervision, three in human relations and credit in surveying on the basis of institutional evaluation.”
Let’s say an incoming student from the E-6 11B Squad might face completion of three 3-credit intro classes in the major. However, ACE recommendations show that the Leader would earn 10 school credits that reflect his education at the 11B MOS. Now the student can leap past the intro section and possibly other courses that are credited. The ultimate time-to-degree is shortened.
Active service members should contact the following education agencies to request transcripts to send to prospective online military colleges. Search by branch:
There is no template for how many credits each school should offer incoming service personnel and veterans once they receive their transcripts. Because these can vary by institution, it can be an advantage to compare transfer offers since ultimately credits can speed up time to graduation as well as cut total costs of a degree.
The JST system is the agency of choice for veterans seeking transcripts. However, vets can also submit a completed DD-295 – Application For The Evaluation of Learning Experiences During Military Service directly to prospective colleges. A copy of DD-214 Discharge Form should accompany each request. The National Archives will provide a copy of D-214s.
Potential schools should be asked if they accept non-traditional forms of college credit, including DANTES, ACE and CLEP. The total amount of transferable credit from these programs also varies widely between institutions. This amount can vary quite a bit between schools. Students should ask about the maximum amount of credits for each potential degree program. It all can add up to savings in time and money.
Traditional GI Bills customarily award each veteran a lump sum to spend on student fees and tuition. The Post 9/11 GI Bill introduced regulations governing the amount of the monthly housing allowance for online students, establishing a $714.50 cap – roughly half of what the bill awards campus students to supplement their housing costs.
There are other important technicalities. If campus-based classes do not meet course requirements of the VA-approved degree plan, the government will not pay tuition for those classes. These causes a ripple effect, with the reduced approved course load, the VA will lower the amount of the housing allowance to reflect a reduction in credits. And the books/materials stipend also declines by a matching percentage.
There is a remedy for military students willing to take one on-campus course a semester along with online classes that complete their full course load. If the campus course has VA approval, the housing allowance is retained at the maximum rate.
To protect their VA support, students should contact the admissions office and relevant department heads to ensure their prospective courses are approved. Typically, the accredited online school offering the degree can coordinate the on-campus studies.
Distance education is still evolving and the VA regulations regarding campus/online hybrids (also called “blended programs”) categorize the degrees as fully online. That means a lowered housing allowance. According to the VA, courses meeting campus residency requirements have “regularly scheduled standard class sessions that meet at least once every two weeks and the total number classroom instruction (based on 50 minutes of instruction per hour) must equal, or be greater than, the number of credit hours awarded for the course multiplied by the number of weeks in the term.”
Practically speaking, for the student to meet full housing criteria, they must join a 3-credit campus-based class that meets a total of six hours every other week, for 48 weeks.
But that’s just for undergraduates.
For graduate students, the VA has created different on-campus training definitions. Typically these programs reflect hybrids in that the class for “in-residence” students meets regularly on campus. The student also must meet research requirements conducted online, on campus, or through a combination of formats.
The VA’s definition of distance learning states the process as “consisting of interaction between the student and the instructor (who is physically separated from the student) through the use of communications technology instead of regularly scheduled, conventional classroom or laboratory sessions. Communications technology includes mail, telephone, audio or videoconferencing, computer technology (online internet courses or email) or other electronic means such as one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite or wireless communications devices. Any courses that consists of some interaction using communications technology and some weeks of standard class sessions, but do not meet the requirements to be classified as in-residence training, are considered distance learning.”
A full-time student attending one campus class and the balance online can be especially vulnerable to VA restrictions. If the VA finds that the campus course is technically “distance learning,” the student would lose the full stipend and receive the $714.50 online allowance. Prospective students should contact each institution to determine which campus courses are VA-approved as in-residence classes.
With the standard GI Bill, students were issued payment and they would be responsible for paying for tuition, housing and books.
Under provisions of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the VA pays the institution directly, awarding up to 100 percent of in-state tuition at public schools and capping the annual tuition support at $19,198.31 for private institutions.
Students attending colleges that charge them non-resident tuition or private school tuition over the VA cap must make up the difference out of their own pocket.
There is program designed to bridge the shortfall, if the institution has a participating agreement for the VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program.
Note: GI Bill pay rates are adjusted each October 1st; Post 9/11 GI Bill pay rates are adjusted annually on August 1st.
Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, tuition and housing allowance payments for each veteran are calculated by “the amount of creditable active-duty service after Sept. 10, 2001.” Veterans that that have 24 months active duty after September 10, 2001 are ranked in the 80 percent tier. Their total support would be 80 percent of the tuition (at a public institution).
Students who are at the 100 percent Post 9/11 GI Bill tier are eligible to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Participating Yellow Ribbon Schools report to the VA:
For its part in the program, the VA in-turn matches the total fees paid or waived by the participating school. Ideally, the combined contributions would cover 100 percent of the veteran’s tuition and fees. But participating schools may decide to waive or fund a smaller percentage of the costs, creating a matching reduction in support from the VA.
The VA has determined it will not pay tuition support for online or hybrid developmental-level courses (typically with class numbers under 100). Students must either pay their own or take the approved course on campus and receive VA funding.
Military online colleges charge tuition based on the total number of enrolled credits per semester. There are additional fees to remember when budgeting. VA-approved programs may charge administration fees, materials and lab fees and student activity fees (typically for in-residence or campus students).
Under provisions of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the VA supports most customary fees; however not all degree programs are eligible. It’s important to remember this fact when exploring potential online programs. The VA Tuition Top-Up or Tuition Assistance (TA) programs also bridge tuition-funding gaps except for veterans using benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), who must pay their own way.
Veterans and military students supported by TA will have to work around caps of $250 for each enrolled credit hour with an annual ceiling of $4,000 per academic year — a 16 credit hour maximum.
One way to reduce out-of-pocket payments on tuition is to qualify for scholarships, tuition discounts or school vouchers.
It pays to research online colleges for military personnel for additional avenues of financial aid. The Top-Up option allows veterans to tap the funds remaining in their service branch Post 9/11 GI Bill or MGIB entitlements to pay for tuition.
Through the Top-Up, the VA receives a statement reflecting the shortfall in tuition based on what the institution charges and the TA contribution and pays the difference by reimbursing the TA and deducting the converted amount in terms of remaining student entitlement in their old GI Bill/MGIB accounts.
Post-9/11 GI Bill veterans using the Tuition Top-Up option do not have funding calculated based upon a credit hour formula. Instead, a full semester of entitlement is deducted by the VA, irrespective of any reimbursements made to service branches.
The Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) program was launched by the Department of Defense in 2010 to assist the spouses of active duty service members to take online and campus courses that lead to credentials or licenses for an approved career path. The program provides up to $4,000 to spouses of active duty military or Title 10 Selected Reserve members in lower pay grades to help defray college costs. Because the Department of Homeland Security oversees the Coast Guard, spouses of members in that service branch are not eligible for the MyCAA program.
The program is specifically created to assist spouses of military members with low pay grades that haven’t accrued the required six years of active duty to participate in Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. The MyCAA military grades authorized for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force are E1 through E5; W1 and W2; O1 and O2. Spouses of activated Guard and Reserve members are eligible if sponsors remain on Title 10 orders for the duration of each semester.
Spouses are encouraged to receive educations in designated portable career fields. Approved programs lead to:
Spouses qualifying for MyCAA accounts can attend campus, online or blended programs and must complete their funded education in three years.
Online colleges for veterans, active service members and eligible spouses make it possible to complete a college degree without interruption or displacement, no matter the deployment or stationing conditions. And VA-funded educational financial aid programs open doors to universities, colleges and trade schools for service personnel and veterans.
When viewing college websites, phoning admissions officers or emailing schools, ask for specific information on: