by Julie Capouch, Guest Contributor
I was a freshman in college. He was a handsome blue-eyed soldier who took my breath away. I knew wherever he was going to go, I wanted to go too. What I didn’t know at the time was that “going” would mean immediately moving to a new state and an introduction to the world of college transfers.
Having married my service member in college and given birth to 2 children before finishing my bachelor’s degree, I know a thing or two about navigating the higher education landscape as a military spouse and parent.
The majority of my “college years” were spent working on a laptop while tapping a baby bouncer with my feet or doing homework during naptime. I now have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and work in a field I love.
It certainly hasn’t been easy.
Going to college as a military spouse can at times feel like a set of constant detours and roadblocks rather than a straight path.
To keep your path as smooth as possible, it’s wise to do your homework before you register for your first class. Here are practical, financial and personal considerations all military spouses should ponder before returning to college (or going for the first time).
Research your major. Will you get a good return-on-investment? Meaning, would this degree result in a career that pays enough to warrant the time, money and energy you put into going to school? After graduation, will the hours you work fit within your family life and the life you envision having? Make sure you are thinking long-term.
Research your school. What’s the rate of completion? What’s the post-graduation job placement rate? Does it have a bad reputation or a stigma attached to it? This is very important with online and for-profit schools. Some of them are excellent. Some of them are not. A good mid-point may be looking into brick and mortar state schools that offer online programs.
Check accreditation. Make sure your school is regionally accredited. There are 6 regional accreditation bodies in the U.S. and they all have agreements for transferring college credits between their accredited institutions. Most graduate programs also require that you have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited university for admission. Likewise, some employers may not accept your degree if it was not granted by a regionally accredited institution.
National accreditation is not the same as regional accreditation. If you are going into a specialized field like nursing, teaching or social work (and many others), make sure your specific program is also accredited by your field’s appropriate governing body.
Do you even need a B.A./B.S.? Not all jobs require a 4-year degree. Could you work in the field you want or do the job you desire with a certificate or associate degree? When I was completing an internship in graduate school, a running joke between my mentor and myself was how her husband made more money with a 2-year degree than we did with master’s degrees. He is a helicopter mechanic. We are teachers.
How will you pay for this? Unless you are using your spouse’s Post-9/11 GI Bill, you’ll likely have to fork over some money to get a degree. Simply taking out student loans and hoping everything will work out is not a smart option.
Could you use savings or take on a part-time job to cover the cost of tuition? Some schools offer payment plans that allow you to pay a little each month without taking out an interest-bearing loan. A few others offer flat-rate tuition (often as low as $3,000 every 6 months), which can make college seem much more affordable than one might think.
Complete the FAFSA. You must, must, must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Don’t assume you won’t qualify for assistance just because you aren’t dirt poor. Because of the unique blend of taxable and nontaxable income our service members receive, many military spouses qualify for Pell Grants. The Federal Work Study program (through FAFSA) is also a great way to not only earn money to help pay for college, but to gain experience related to your major as well.
Look into scholarships. Who doesn’t love free money? Put your military affiliation to good use and apply for military spouse scholarships, such as the Army Emergency Relief Spouse Education Assistance Program or the Corvias Foundation’s Active-Duty Spouse Scholarship. Simply typing “military spouse scholarship” into Google will put you on track to finding scholarships that might be right for you.
Consider a community college. If you are just starting out or have less than about 45 semester hours of college credit, consider taking classes at a community college. This is especially useful if you are paying tuition out-of-pocket, as tuition at a community college is usually about half the cost of a state university. Most state universities have agreements with the community colleges in the same state to ensure credits will transfer smoothly for those going on to pursue 4-year degrees.
Be realistic about the demands of school. If getting a degree as an adult learner were easy, a larger percentage of the population would have a degree. Ask yourself, are the demands of school reasonable for your life? Should you go part-time or full-time? What will you do about child care? Do you have a support system in place to allow for study time and homework, not just class time? Being reasonable about what you can and cannot handle will set you up for success.
Would you even like your job? Answer this question honestly. If you face the crazy that is going to college as a military spouse and come out with a degree in hand, you’ll hopefully use that degree for the rest of your life. So don’t go into a field you know you would hate. Don’t study nursing if you are afraid of needles. Don’t become a teacher if you hate children. Don’t go to dental hygienist school if mouths weird you out.
Going back to college as a military spouse can at first seem daunting, but if you’ve done your homework and knocked out these practical, financial and personal considerations, you’re well on your way to walking across that stage.
Are you thinking about going back to college? What are your concerns?
Julie Capouch is a military spouse, mother of two, and English teacher living in the Southeast. She writes about parenting, education, and military life.