If you’re on active duty and thinking about pursuing further education, you might find yourself wondering, “Can I be in the military and college at the same time?” You’ll be interested to know that the answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” Thousands of servicemembers enroll in college during their military careers to boost professional goals, accelerate personal development, and gain increases in rank and pay. Success in college has increased with the growth of military-friendly colleges online. In addition to active military students, Veterans and their family members are among the thousands who benefit by earning online degrees.
Finding Military-Friendly Colleges Online and in Person
To understand the popularity of taking classes during active duty, imagine the lines that form daily to speak to advisors at Naval Base San Diego, where Kathy Spittler is the associate director of Military Center Operations, Naval Bases, Military Online. She says San Diego is one of the busiest centers for student advising and registration.
Advisors from military-friendly schools spend several hours a week advising students at various military installations. Spittler explains that the schools represented on base don’t compete with each other, but rather they provide students with options for courses and degrees that fit their needs and ambitions, even if that means directing a student to another school.
Oftentimes, advisors recommend National University’s face-to-face classes on base, or online. Spittler has advised students for more than 20 years, way before NU began its online programs. NU now offers 90 different degree programs that are 100% online and is considered one of the best online colleges for military servicemembers. National’s unique format, four weeks of classes in one intensive month, meshes well with military schedules.
On-Base, Face-to-Face, and Hybrid Classes Are Military-Friendly
The NU site at Naval Base San Diego offers in-person classes, but Spittler says students are free to attend or transfer to different schools as well.
“We work with each other to make sure that we’re there for military students that walk in,” she says. For example, if NU doesn’t offer a particular major, advisors can suggest another school with onsite classes near their base or appropriate online classes.
Many of National’s military students prefer face-to-face classes, but they also have an option to take hybrid courses, which offer both an in-person class and online element. For other students, a 100% online degree is the best option.
Even members of the military serving overseas have several choices. Some schools offer on-site classes at or near military bases. Servicemembers stationed in one place for two or three years can earn credits in these traditional classrooms. Online degrees are increasingly popular for many active-duty military students, especially those who may be off-shore during part or all of a term. For instance, an active-duty sailor might begin a course onshore and then be deployed. Spittler explains that when someone is sent overseas they can’t always take (in-person) classes, which makes online learning a more flexible option.
“We do have a lot of students who are moving to online, for whatever reason, between work, military commitments, being trained, or being deployed… the online format is very beneficial to them,” she says.
Students who are trying to combine military and college at the same time may find formats like National’s month-long courses to fit better with their schedules. The four-week courses are brief but intensive. Since new courses begin each month, there’s always something new and fresh to learn and you are never far from being able to keep the momentum going on your educational goals.
Can I Afford to Go to School While I’m on Active Duty?
Active-duty servicemembers are eligible for Military Tuition Assistance, the most common form of military financial aid assistance. The program pays up to $4,500 each fiscal year for tuition and other school expenses, aid that can serve as an important motivator for students.
If someone in the military has served long enough, they may become eligible for GI Bill benefits. However, these benefits have a few limitations for those on active-duty. Spittler explains one caveat: the housing allowance isn’t available to those still serving.
“With the GI Bill, they’re not going to get the housing allowance because they’re already getting that in the military,” Spittler says.
The GI Bill is more likely to come into play during active reserve duty when members of the military can use the GI Bill for on-site classes. The GI Bill is also popular among Veteran students. In addition, all or part of any unused GI Bill education benefits can be gifted to a spouse as long as the request is completed while the servicemember is an active member of the armed forces.
These financial perks are motivators for active-duty servicemembers to enroll in college, Spittler says. Another financial boost can come from increased rank and pay. For example, Spittler explains if someone is moving closer to a bachelor’s degree, “they do get points toward moving up in the ranks and being promoted to the next rank.”
Making It Work Under Difficult Circumstances
Perseverance and dedication are key characteristics of successful students. Spittler says she’s helped hundreds of students, and always loves to hear their stories. A few of them still stand out in her memory.
She recalls advising an online military student who was deployed overseas. He was interested in a master’s program at National. She told him it’d be a great program for him, but that he needed to take the classes in sequence, without breaks in between. She also told him his options in case he needed to drop a class.
Throughout the program, the student kept in touch with Spittler and, although she knew he was deployed, she didn’t know where. Spittler says when a student is on active duty, “You can’t really discuss where they’re at because of security reasons. I really don’t ask.”
Wherever he was serving, the time difference was significant, and the student would stay up late in order to call Spittler during her office hours if he needed to speak to her. His ability to focus on difficult coursework while deployed really captured her attention and she praised him for his efforts.
Finally, he arrived at his capstone project, which is the last course in a National University program. Going into the last course, he had all A’s, but he was upset to receive a B+ in his final class.
It wasn’t until this student returned home from his deployment that he told Spittler where he had been and about the kind of stress he had been under. She says he had served in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and then Iraq again, and finally in Iran. She was surprised to find out that he had moved through so many military zones and had been under so much stress as he completed his courses.
She told him not to be so unhappy about the B+, but rather to be proud of what he had accomplished. It was no small thing to transition from one country to another and then to transition home.
The turmoil of military zones is very challenging, explains Spittler. The intense focus that his schoolwork required became one of the things that kept this student going. “School kept his mind off of what was going on around him. That’s why he did so well, because he was very focused on his schoolwork, and it helped him forget what was happening around him,” Spittler says.
She recalls telling him that his amazing story really touched her heart. “And he goes, ‘Well, but I still got a B+.’ So he couldn’t let it go,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to just be proud you got through this program!’”
Online degrees that build work skills
Through a college education, active-duty students can enhance their existing job skills and even advance in rank as they apply what they’ve learned to their positions. Spittler explains that a few of the more common National programs known to help military students advance in their careers include information technology management, cybersecurity, and leadership programs.
Some servicemembers choose programs that closely relate to what they are doing on active duty. For instance, many military medics or corpsmen pursue online or on-campus registered nursing programs. While you can serve as a Navy hospital corpsman without being a registered nurse, this educational experience can help you enter the nursing field after active duty.
Other students decide to pursue degrees that don’t relate to their role in the military, opting for something that they might consider to be more marketable when they transition out of service, Spittler says. The variety of programs NU offers, more than 75 in all, gives them a lot of options to choose from and the one-month course format is very attractive to a servicemember who may need to pause for a month and then restart classes again.
What Obstacles Do Active-Duty Military Students Face?
Active duty servicemembers always face the chance of deployment. What if a student starts classes and then gets deployment orders, orders to go to training, or are temporarily assigned elsewhere? Spittler says NU has military-friendly policies in place to help their students navigate such issues.
Active-duty servicemembers also may have irregular schedules that make even online education difficult to sustain, such as 24-hour shifts, followed by an immediate call back to work.
“Not all military work is from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., which are typical military hours,” she says. Advisors are available when these students need options and solutions. Sometimes military students need to drop a class, but again, the four-week monthly start format of National classes provides many opportunities for students to jump back in when they are ready. Other students may need to drop classes for a period of time when their annual Tuition Assistance runs out or when they can’t afford the books required for a class.
Spittler says that advisors will tell students in this situation, “That’s OK, we’ll check in with you in a couple of months. You can let me know where you’re at.”
National University Seeks Motivated Students
Advisors at NU look for military students who are motivated, focused, and want to do better in life. These students may not have been successful in the classroom before entering the military. But military service can change all that.
“A lot of students go to different schools and don’t do well because they don’t know how to balance military commitments,” Spittler says. But she explains when they’ve been in the military for a while, they’ve learned discipline and accountability, and have developed the motivation to move up in rank. So all of this makes a difference when they decide to return to the classroom. In the application process, their high school grade point average is not as important as their current level of motivation, according to Spittler.
While a student with a low high school GPA may be embarrassed when they first approach an advisor, Spittler says she and her colleagues are understanding and will ask: “What is different now?”
In an interview process, the advisor gathers information and asks questions that help the student determine their reason for seeking more education, and to help understand if they are ready.
She finds that, most often, prospective military students are usually ready and prepared for the challenge of college after serving in the military for a year or two. Additionally, the educational benefits they’ve earned help ease the decision.
With all that lined up, Spittler adds, “So why shouldn’t they go to school?”
Students who persist earn degrees
Spittler has been with National University for 16 years and was an advisor to students in the early days of the military online department She recalls another memorable military and college success story.
Despite being deployed four times and going through a divorce, this student kept coming back to take courses through NU. It took him 12 years of persistence to finish his associate degree, but finish he did. His example demonstrates the difficult balancing act between military service, family, and education.
“They go through so much, they’re out there protecting us, and they have to balance between the military and families … they’re all about their families,” Spittler says. “So having to deal with that and wanting to get their education, and seeing them succeed, that to me is why I’m still doing what I’m doing.”
She adds, “That’s one of the hardest things for them to do, is complete their degrees while they’re in the military. And then when you see that, it’s like, ‘Wow, you did it!’
National University’s flexible options make higher education accessible for active-duty servicemembers who want to advance in rank, enhance their knowledge, and emerge from their active service with additional skills and opportunities.
The advisors who interview potential students take into account their preferences for in-person or online classes, their status as far as deployment, and the best academic program to suit their needs, whether it’s at National University or another school. Tuition assistance is a big plus, and rank advancement can result from earning a degree. A significant number of National University servivcemember students work on advanced degrees as well.