Most people head to college in their late teens and early 20s, right after high school and before finding their first full-time jobs. But for those who've served in the military, the path to higher education has a few more twists and turns.
According to the Student Veterans of America, 85% of veteran students are 24 or older, 27% are women and 47% have children to consider. Along with a military background, these students enter college with very different needs than traditional college-age students.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes the specific needs of veterans and offers educational benefits under the GI Bill that help cover the cost of college. GI benefits help veterans of all branches of the U.S. military and some active-duty members fund their college education.
But understanding your GI benefits is only part of the equation, especially if you're the first in your family to consider getting a college degree. To help make sense of the rest, NerdScholar asked college admission and veteran services experts to shed light on the key steps in the application process for veteran students. Use these tips and resources to find the best college for you and apply this fall.
1. Apply for GI Benefits early.
GI benefits come in many packages and vary in the amount of money offered, depending on when and for how long you served. Under the Post-9/11 Bill, for instance, students have 15 years to use their funds, whereas the Montgomery Bill has a 10-year limit. Be sure to research your options so that you know what to expect when tuition payments are due.
"Applying to colleges and for GI benefits early is the best approach to take. For some veterans, the process may take up to six months," says Eric Kocian, assistant professor of criminology, law and society at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania and a former veteran student. Familiarize yourself with the VA website to learn about the most appropriate GI benefit.
The VA even offers a GI Bill Comparison tool, which assesses the veterans resources available at specific colleges as well as how much of your college expenses your GI benefits will cover.
2. Consider your educational priorities.
By knowing what you most value in your education, you'll be able to make smarter decisions on where to apply. Jessica Roscoe, an academic advisor for veterans at the University of Pittsburgh, recommends asking yourself, "what time, money, and a degree is worth to you."
For many veterans, the main goal is getting the most out of your GI benefit funds. "A particular school might not be a good fit for you if the program you would be enrolled in will take longer to complete than the duration of your GI Bill educational benefits," Roscoe says.
Look at colleges that offer the "best bang for your GI benefit's buck," Regina Morin, vice president for enrollment management at Truman State University, recommends. "Compare quantifiable measures such as graduation rates, placement into graduate schools and employment, costs and affordability as well as subjective measures such as opportunities for high-impact experiences, accessibility of faculty, and avenues for involvement."
If your goal is to avoid borrowing money at all costs, apply for scholarships, especially those aimed at helping veterans. You can also apply for federal financial aid and only accept the grants you qualify for, not the loans you'd have to pay back.
3. Find VA-approved colleges that accept transfer and military class credits.
Tuition payments on behalf of your GI benefit might not be accepted at every college. Use the VA website to determine if your prospective colleges are "regionally accredited and approved by the VA," says Nathaniel Harrison, manager of instruction for the Division of Military Education, Corporate Training, & Business Development at Coastline Community College in California.
If you previously completed college courses, either during your military service or before, check to see if those units will transfer to your new school. Likewise, trainings you did in the military could count toward your degree requirements. "Provide the university you want to attend an official copy of your military transcript," says Amy Becher, vice president for enrollment management at Chatham University. "Use your military experience to get a jump start on college transfer credits so that you can put the work you've done during your service to work for you in college."
Refer to the American Council on Education's Military Guide to determine which military courses will transfer and how. That way, you'll be using your VA funds on credits you need, not credits you're replacing.
4. Seek out certified veterans affairs staff.
"Once [students] narrow down their options based on personal preferences, geographic [location], and academic programs," Morin says, "it is best to seek assistance from the veterans affairs office." This office will be your best resource when searching for the best college, complete with staff and students who can lend insights into life at the university from a veteran's perspective.
At Truman State University, Morin says, "we ask [students] military-specific questions and use this data to connect the applicant with our veteran affairs officer in the registrar's office."
According to Harrison, who also oversees two veterans resource centers, "most schools will have a VA certifying official or veteran counselor who can answer questions about benefits." He says certified staff members at his community college specialize in helping veteran students complete their college applications. "Our [VA certifying] staff also inform veterans about other resources that are available beyond their VA GI Bill benefits."
5. Find a military-friendly college.
If you're looking for a large support system of fellow veteran students, try seeking out colleges known for their large veteran population, recommends Tom Boscamp, a current veteran student at Coastline Community College. Ask yourself, "Is the [veterans resource center] a little closet tucked away in the corner with outdated computers? Or is it an actual place where veterans can connect with other veterans, catch up on homework, or just relax between classes?" Once enrolled, he says, "Get tied in to your campus' student veterans club, such as [their chapter of] the Student Veterans of America."
6. Be prepared to face some challenges.
Many veterans struggle with the transition from national service to college. "One of the most common challenges my students admit to facing is learning how to overcome their pride and ask for help," Roscoe says. Knowing that you will face new challenges is the first step to overcoming them.
"College will not necessarily be easier than your time in the military," she says. "It might be just as challenging, just in a different way. Every institution is going to have resources to help you be successful, but you have to be willing to seek them out and use them."
In the end, know that getting a college education is within reach. In fact, Kocian notes that "when compared to traditional applicants, veterans typically have a much better success rate in college because they have been tested in ways others have not, they have a greater handle on self-discipline, and they understand why they are in college and what their overall goal is."