For many veterans, the transition from the military to a civilian career begins first with earning a college degree, and for good reason. A college education brings a number of powerful benefits, including higher wages, increased marketability, increased employment opportunities, economic stability, and greater job satisfaction.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for veterans and servicemembers to question their ability to earn a college education, or to experience anxiety about the unique challenges that it will bring.
Table of Contents
Can You Go to College After the Military?
If you’re considering earning a degree after serving in the military, you might be questioning whether it is an attainable goal for you. Luckily, there are support systems in place to help veterans make a successful transition so that they can further their education and pursue fulfilling civilian careers.
“Vets often convince themselves that school is so different from what they’ve been doing, and therefore it’ll be very difficult to adjust,” Andy McCarty, director of Northeastern’s Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers (CAVS) and veteran of the United States Air Force.
“That’s why, at orientation, I try to remind our vets how much learning they were required to do in the military. Maybe it didn’t happen in a traditional classroom setting, but they were charged with learning and mastering a variety of skills. And they were typically given little time to do it, often in a high-pressure environment,” he says. “If they can keep that in mind, it might help relieve some of the anxiety around returning to school.”
With this fact in mind, we have compiled a list of advice and tips that military veterans can use to both prepare themselves for college and thrive as students.
Tips for Applying to College After the Military
Once you’ve made the decision to pursue a degree after leaving the military, it’s time to start applying to programs. Before applying to a college, there are a few things you should know to ensure that you’re prepared.
1. Build a support system early.
Before you even begin your college search, it’s important that you build a support system that you can rely on while pursuing your goals.
Whether friends, family, colleagues, or a combination of all three, identifying this support system and making them aware of your aspirations can help you in ways you might not expect.
These are the people who will be there for you when things are challenging, or when things don’t go according to plan. They’ll be the ones rooting for your success and celebrating your victories. And they will be there to hold you accountable to goals.
2. Set goals.
Setting goals is an important part of the college application process, as it can help guide you in the decisions that you will be forced to make regarding your education. Instead of applying to college and then deciding your goals, it’s a smart idea to define your goals before you get too far along in the process.
“I strongly encourage servicemembers and veterans to really think through their goals before applying to college,” McCarty says.
He suggests that veterans ask themselves questions like:
- Why do you want to go to college and earn your degree?
- What career or job title do you hope to have after graduation?
- What degree do you want to pursue that will best prepare you for that career?
- Will a career in your chosen industry require you to earn a graduate degree such as a master’s or doctoral degree in order to be competitive in the field?
- Where do you hope to live?
- Are there jobs in your chosen field in or around the place you want to live?
- What will job demand look like in that industry in five, ten, twenty years?
“I caution servicemembers not to fall into the trap of just blindly enrolling in classes. They sometimes think, ‘I’ll just take some classes now and figure out a degree objective later,’” says McCarty. “But it can come at the cost of eating into one’s education benefits, and some credits may not transfer if/when you switch institutions. Imagine putting in the work to earn a good grade and not having that class count towards your degree. This happens a lot.”
Reflecting on your personal and professional objectives before enrolling will help you better align your degree program and achieve your goals.
Ready to Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree?
Learn more about Northeastern’s military-friendly bachelor’s degree completion programs.
3. Understand your benefits.
But exactly how much funding you are entitled to will depend on a number of factors, including when you served and the length of your service, and deciphering what you are entitled to can be overwhelming. A Veteran Service Officer (VSO) or a student financial advisor can help you understand and apply to receive your benefits.
At Northeastern, the CAVS office is dedicated to helping its veterans take advantage of their available military benefits to maximize their funding.
4. Look for military-friendly colleges.
Veterans often face a unique set of challenges when making the transition from military service to the civilian world, and the same holds true for veterans who choose to enroll in college. By selecting a college or university that has proven itself military- and veteran-friendly, you can increase your likelihood of success.
There are a number of factors that can indicate that a college is military-friendly, but some of the key characteristics to look for include:
- Strong financial support for military students
- An active veteran center and veteran community on campus
- Military-specific academic assistance
- Military-specific career resources that can prepare you for life after graduation
“Some institutions have veteran or military offices where they employ staff to help individuals like you. This is a good thing to look for before applying, as these offices may be able to assist you with your application/admission process,” says McCarty. “If you’re accepted, they can probably also assist you with understanding the credit transfer process and how to use your VA education benefits.”
That being said, he acknowledges that “there are also fine institutions that offer a great education, but they don’t have any services dedicated to their student veterans or servicemembers. The key is finding a reputable institution that offers strong academics as well as programs and services dedicated to your success.”
5. Don’t overlook distance or online opportunities.
In the past, you were limited to whatever colleges or universities were close to where you lived, which you could physically attend.
Those days are long over. Veterans and students of all backgrounds now have many options for earning their degrees remotely, online, or through a hybrid mix of in-person and online courses. This enables them to pursue the best possible education while also juggling other responsibilities likely competing for your attention, such as work or family obligations.
For this reason, McCarty strongly encourages veterans to consider universities beyond their immediate geographic region, and not to automatically assume they must attend a local college.
6. Know what credits will transfer from your military experience.
Veterans and servicemembers can use their military experience to earn college credits, possibly allowing them to reduce the time and money that it will take to earn a degree. But because every college is free to determine their own policies regarding transfer credits, it’s important for vets to understand what will carry over before they matriculate.
Another option is to take the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), which are exams designed to test your understanding of college-level materials. Depending on how you perform, you could qualify to skip a number of general education or introductory-level courses and graduate faster.
7. Apply for financial aid.
Though veterans are eligible for generous educational benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they do have limits. Sometimes, veterans may find themselves unable to fully cover the cost of college with these benefits alone, and they should be aware of the options available to help them pay for college.
That is why all veterans who apply for college should submit the free FAFSA application to determine what federal and state financial aid they may be entitled to in addition to their GI benefits. Grants and scholarships can be especially helpful, as they do not need to be repaid.
“Financing your education isn’t something you should worry about after you’ve enrolled at an institution, just like you shouldn’t drive off the lot in a brand new car that you clearly can’t afford,” says McCarty.
He suggests veterans ask questions like:
- Does the school participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program? If so, do they offer limited or unlimited contributions?
- Do they have grants or scholarships specifically for veterans?
- What will my out of pocket costs be (if any)?
- Will I have to incur any education debt, either through federal or private loans, in order to obtain my degree?
- If so, what is my plan for repaying those loans?
“Remember that any debt you incur now will be repaid later with interest,” he says. “What kind of a lifestyle will you have when this debt is added to any other financial obligations you have?”
Veterans should understand both the cost of their tuition and the potential ROI of their degree so that they can make an informed decision about what is an appropriate cost to incur.
8. Don’t take rejection too personally.
Finally, McCarty stresses the point that veterans (and all college applicants) should not take rejection too personally.
“A lot of factors go into an admissions decision, and a rejection may not be your fault,” he says. “Plenty of strong applicants are rejected during each enrollment cycle. Don’t let one deter you from pursuing your degree somewhere else.”
He recommends that students who had their hearts set on a particular institution inquire about other alternatives.
“For example, does that university have a professional college for non-traditional students? Oftentimes, these colleges offer full/part-time programs that can help you build more of an academic history of success. This can be helpful if you decide to reapply for a future semester.”
Tips for Transitioning From the Military to College
9. Speak with an academic advisor.
Generally speaking, every student who is admitted to a college program will be assigned an academic advisor. This advisor’s duties are to help you determine your best path for earning your degree. They will help you create a degree plan, choose classes that fulfill degree requirements, and enable you to meet your overarching educational goals. Many will also do their best to put you in touch with various career development services that the university offers.
Some schools, particularly those that cater to a large number of veteran students, employ advisors who are specifically trained to aid veterans. McCarty stresses that veterans, in particular, should speak with their advisors so they can leverage their expertise and improve their chances of success.
10. Find a veterans group on campus.
Any college or university with a substantial number of veteran students is likely to have a veterans group or veterans center on campus. These centers are designed to help answer the specific questions that veteran students might have (about topics like financial aid or GI benefits) but also act as a source of community for many veterans.
“Community is extremely important,” says McCarty. “The camaraderie and sense of community in the military are palpable, and it’s perhaps the number one thing many vets will say they miss most after separation.”
While student veterans organizations (SVO) and veterans centers are important resources, McCarty stresses that other student clubs and groups can be just as important and impactful.
“I encourage our new vets to join a student group. It doesn’t have to be the SVO. But they need to seek out a community that works for them,” he says. “When you’re a part of a community, you’ve got people looking out for you.
11. Embrace hands-on, experiential learning.
Hands-on learning is important for students of all stripes and backgrounds, regardless of whether or not they are veterans. This is because experiential learning like co-ops, internships, volunteer projects, and part-time work all help a student apply what they are learning in a real-world scenario. But these opportunities are especially important for veteran students, says McCarty.
“Experiential learning is extremely important, because it helps veterans begin to see how their military experience benefits them in a private sector role,” he says. “That will help them when they’re asked to articulate the value of their military experience to future employers. Additionally, they’ll become reacquainted with the civilian vernacular that can sometimes seem strange/foreign after years of service. And finally, it’ll show to potential employers that they have been successful in their transition out of the military, and they’re capable of being successful in a civilian work environment.”
While many college students think that networking is something to focus on as they approach graduation, McCarty suggests that students begin networking as soon as possible. Though it might not always feel natural, it’s one of the most important steps that a student can take to further their career.
“Networking is vital. Too many people wait until they’re closer to graduation to start building a professional network when it should be happening much earlier and much more often,” he says. “I’ve spoken with companies who say as much as 80% of their new hires come from employee referrals. So submitting applications online or dropping off resumes at a career fair just won’t cut it. You need to build relationships.”
It’s also important, he says, to remember that networking shouldn’t be a one-sided relationship.
“When you land somewhere after graduation, you can’t let the door close behind you. You need to reach back and help the next veteran.”
Taking the First Step
Starting your new career as a college graduate doesn’t start at graduation. It doesn’t start with attending classes, or even with applying to your school. It starts when you make the personal decision that pursuing a college education is the right choice for you.
Northeastern is dedicated to helping veterans and active servicemembers who have made the choice to pursue a college education. Whether you have started a bachelor’s degree you want to finish, or you’re looking to further your education with a graduate degree, Northeastern has the expertise and resources to empower you along your path.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/.