All online education is not created equal.
Nearly one-third of college students take distance education courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, the investment into a degree is an expensive one and like with any big purchase, there are necessary steps a student should take to guarantee they get the most bang for their buck.
Franc Lopez, president of the Council for College and Military Education (CCME) — an organization providing professional development for those in the military education community along with scholarships for students, says there are several reasons veterans choose the virtual route for school.
“Without a doubt, the flexibility a distance learning program offers is a huge attraction. Having the classroom come to the adult student versus a traditional setting provides a learning environment that meets the need of the military member when weighing their military obligations, personal goals, and family needs,” Lopez said. “In this fast pace world we now live in, advances in technology coupled with distance education offers more diverse educational options than in years past.”
CCME is comprised of member schools that are vetted to ensure they are vested in the success of military-connected students. Examples of attributes they look for are on campus support, affordable tuition rates, flexible course completion requirements, maximizing transfer of credits into degree programs, and administrative and academic staffing that “speak” military.
Lopez says there are a number of questions a student should answer before committing to a program — online or brick-and-mortar.
“Whether online or traditional, they should ask themselves if they are a distance learner or a classroom student. If unsure, they should seek the advice and counsel from the professionals in education to help them assess their best path for success,” he said. “If selecting an online course, how much will it cost me? What are my obligations in completing the course? Will I have to be online at certain times throughout the week or does the course offer a self learning pace to complete course requirements? How will I be assessed in completing my assignments? Will there be peer and instructor support 24/7? Textbooks, how much will that be?”
For nontraditional-type students, like veterans, online education continues to be an attractive option because by the time they exit the military, they are juggling a host of other responsibilities. Derek Fronabarger, Director of Policy for Student Veterans of America (SVA), says there are common challenges veterans face when changing titles from service member to student.
“We see that while individuals are in the military, they are working as a team for a team, when they transition to being a student, they are working as an individual, for the individual. This can be a difficult transition,” he said. “SVA’s primary goal is to help veterans find their student veteran community to address the multitude of issues they face.”
SVA has chapters around the country to support student veterans through every step of pursuing their education and keeps them connected to the camaraderie that they are used to within the military. The organization also works with its members to make sure they are making the best possible choices. Researching accreditation is an important step to that decision-making process because proper accreditation determines a school’s worth. Failing to attend a school that meets certain standards can deem a degree worthless when transferring to another institution or when referencing that education to future employers.
“Accreditation is incredibly important, [especially] with the recent de-accreditation of ACICS, which impacted over 36,000 student veterans. It’s critical that student vets consider this factor,” Fronabarger said. “The best online institutions have a regional or state accreditation.”
ACICS is the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. Recently, the Department of Education denied renewal of recognition to the Council. Please note: in a September 2016 press release, the council announced it is appealing that decision.
Fronabarger advises student veterans to look at three areas when choosing a school:
Is your institution AND program accredited by a regional or state accreditation agency?
Look into the graduation and employment rates of the program that you’re considering.
Maximize online education financial aid options
If possible, save the first two years of your GI Bill, while attending a school that is less expensive (ie: technical school or community college) so that you can complete your degree at a 4-year institution and still provide benefits for graduate school.
Veteran students are a sought after demographic for colleges and universities that recognize the vast financial resources that accompany military service. For that reason, it is critical to be thorough when choosing where to apply those education benefits. By evaluating a school’s accreditation and looking at how other students performed at an institution, a student is more likely to find an online program that meets the nontraditional lifestyle and gets them to graduation day.
To connect with a Student Veterans of America chapter, check out http://studentveterans.org/chapter.