Trying to decide whether you want to go to college or join the military after high school? How about both?
Just ask Joseph Kapinos, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. When he joined the military in 1993 he’d taken some college classes but hadn’t earned a diploma. Now he has two associate’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s the best deal going,” says Kapinos, who works in public affairs at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
The military wants intelligent, educated people in its ranks, and helping troops pay for their college tuition is one way to make that happen. “We view education in the military as a lifelong process,” says Carolyn Baker, chief of continuing education programs for the Department of Defense.
Free or reduced tuition
You may have heard about the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, which allows you to go to college for free if you agree to serve in the military after you graduate. You can also get breaks on tuition after you leave the service.
But these aren’t the only ways to get the military’s help paying for college. If you’re on active duty, the military will cover up to $4,500 a year in college tuition. Some schools give extra discounts. The University of North Dakota (www.und.edu), for example, charges all active-duty members of the military its in-state tuition rate — even if they’ve never been to North Dakota.Carol Anson, UND’s veteran and military advisor, says many active-duty troops who take college classes do it to maximize their benefits.
The GI Bill, which covers at least some of the college tuition for veterans, is only good for three years of school. So if you take classes while on active duty, you could use the GI Bill to help pay for a bachelor’s or graduate degree. If the military’s tuition assistance program isn’t enough to cover your costs while on active duty, The GI Bill might pay the rest.
On your own time
Remember, though, that the military expects active duty to be your first responsibility. “You signed a contract to work for Uncle Sam, not go to school,” says Michael Johnson, director of military outreach and services at Northern Virginia Community College (www.nvcc.edu). He says fitting college classes around jobs with standard daytime hours is relatively easy. Other military jobs have odd schedules or will take you away from your duty station for days at a time. If that’s the case, school might not fit. This is why Baker says your commander will have to approve any courses you take before you show up for class. You can’t get out of overseas assignments by taking college classes, and you shouldn’t sign up for a class you can’t finish. But if you’re deployed unexpectedly, many colleges will let you withdraw or take incomplete grades without penalty.
Confused? Don’t worry. Most military installations have education centers where you can meet with a counselor. Your first step toward pursuing a degree on active duty should be a visit to a counselor who will help you figure out your educational goals and choose a school.
Paths to a diploma
Members of the military can also take advantage of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges. This program gives college credit for military experience and training. Plus, it has arrangements with schools all over the U.S. that allow you to transfer credits from one college to another. That’s helpful if military commitments put you in three different states before you get a degree.
When Kapinos returned to college while on active duty, he earned two associate’s degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. All he needed for his first degree was a math class he took through Park University (www.park.edu). Then, in 2010 he earned a bachelor’s degree in management from Park. He thought his military work experience and college diplomas would help him get a job once he’s eligible to retire in 2012. He might even go to graduate school with help from the GI Bill.
Flexible course options
Attending college while in the military takes serious time-management skills. During the five years Kapinos worked on his bachelor’s degree he was stationed in South Carolina, North Dakota and Turkey. (He had to stop studying during two deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan). Plus, he’s married with three kids. It helped that he could take all of his classes online, one or two at a time. He’d squeeze in homework before and after work, during lunch and while his kids were asleep.
“My wife was very understanding,” Kapinos says. “My kids were very understanding that this is what Daddy has to do.”
Plenty of colleges offer online classes. If it fits into your schedule, you might also take a class on a nearby college campus. UND has some classes that are set aside for active-duty military and veterans. Anson says these classes are a great way to meet others who understand what the military is like.
Joining the service doesn’t mean postponing your dreams of college. The military offers many ways for you to earn a degree while serving your country.
Rebecca VanderMeulen has a degree in journalism from American University (www.american.edu).