two military servicemembers talk to each other

How to Go to College While on Active Duty

Join us as we welcome Kenneth Gannon, a respected retired Marine Corps veteran and executive enrollment advisor with National University's Military Division, onto the show. Kenneth enlightens us on the journey of acquiring a college degree while on active military duty. He details how this move not only engenders promotions within the military, but also sets the stage for more career prospects along with the potential for higher earnings post-service. Kenneth also educates us on how to fully leverage active duty and VA benefits, and the integral role of the military tuition assistance program.

In the second half, Kenneth continues to share his knowledge, addressing vital questions military students should pose when considering a school. He places emphasis on the significance of uncovering discounts available to active duty members, understanding the cost of a course, and the acceptance of military tuition assistance. Kenneth also highlights the relevance of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC), and the incredible opportunity of earning college credit through military training. Through this engaging conversation, Kenneth empowers military personnel to make informed decisions about furthering their education while serving. Tune in for an insightful discussion!

Show Notes

  • 0:02:18 - College and Active Duty Service (61 Seconds)
  • 0:06:10 - Understanding Tuition Assistance and Procedures (59 Seconds)
  • 0:10:58 - Deployment Strategy and Internet Accessibility (37 Seconds)
  • 0:12:52 - Choose Military Friendly Schools, Maximize Benefits (81 Seconds)
  • 0:16:12 - Supporting New Online School Students (113 Seconds)
  • 0:23:07 - Obtaining Training Transcripts for Servicemembers (75 Seconds)

0:00:01 - Announcer

You are listening to the National University Podcast.

0:00:10 - Kimberly King

Hello, I'm Kimberly King. Welcome to the National University Podcast, where we offer a holistic approach to student support, well-being and success- the whole human education. We put passion into practice by offering accessible, achievable higher education to lifelong learners. Today we are talking about how to go to college while on active military duty and, according to, some of the benefits of furthering your education while serving are that if you stay in the military, you are more likely to get promoted. The military also gives promotion points. If you aspire to be an officer, you will most likely need a four-year degree, and if you decide to transition to civilian life, you'll already have a head start by attaining that degree. And then the last tip is that if you likely have more career opportunities and the potential for higher earnings all while going to college while on active duty Some great tips today on today's show.

On today's episode, we're discussing how to go to college while on active duty in the military and joining us as National University's, Kenneth Gannon again retired from the Marine Corps in 2004 after 20 years of active duty. Thank you for your service, by the way and he's been working in higher education ever since 2005. He's currently an active executive enrollment advisor with National University's Military Division, where he works only with active duty and reserve military and their families. He helps active duty and reserve military personnel understand their education options at National University and also assists them in understanding how to use and maximize their active duty and VA benefits. He is personally used to wish and assistance benefits while on active duty and as well as GI bill benefits after his retirement and understands how they work and how to access those benefits. Great information here. We welcome you to the podcast, Ken. How are you?

0:02:10 - Kenneth Gannon

I'm fine, thanks.

0:02:12 - Kimberly King

Boy, this is such a great thing a service that you are doing, so thank you. Why don't you fill our audience a little bit on your mission and your work before we get to today's show?

0:02:23 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, well, most of the years that I've spent working in higher education has been working primarily with military. National University is one of those rare schools where they have a whole department that's devoted to helping the military access their benefits and be able to go to school and showing them how they can make it fit and all that. So that's what I spend all my time doing is talking to active duty and veterans and educating them on how they can maximize the benefits, how they can access them, and showing active duty, particularly how it's possible to be able to go to school even with a deployment schedule, and things like that.

0:03:02 - Kimberly King

So well, good for you, and I love the work that you are doing and, especially, it's been part of your life experience. So today we're talking about how to go to college while you are in active duty, and so Ken is going back to school and earning a degree, encouraged by the military, and if so, why?

0:03:20 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, I mean college experience provides a lot of different skills and shifts in attitude that any unit in the military is going to find valuable college provides. It's a sense of accomplishment. It helps to build confidence as they're going through and earning their education. It also helps students gain new knowledge and there is that they probably didn't have before. They didn't have a lot of knowledge before going to school, but that knowledge can also help units when it comes time to making decisions and things like that. It also helps to develop the organizational and critical thinking skills and makes them overall more effective. So it's a win-win.

You know, the military member gets to earn a college degree and the military gets to take advantage of the changes and the things that they're learning as we're doing it.

0:04:10 - Kimberly King

I love that. It is a win-win and really kind of giving them that purpose for later on in life as well. So what incentives do servicemembers have for going back to school and how does the military help?

0:04:23 - Kenneth Gannon

Well, active duty and reserves on most branches, especially at the lower ranks. For the enlisted ranks there's a point system to getting promoted. You accumulate a certain number of points based on a lot of different criteria, one of those criteria being education outside the military. So as they earn college credits they gain points to help them get closer to promotion more quickly. It also helps them develop some skills, because everybody goes in for a certain MOS or job specialty and sometimes they want to lateral into something related but not exactly what they're doing. So they go to college to get a little bit of experience to be able to do those. You know, alternative billets so they can be more effective and successful at it.

0:05:09 - Kimberly King

Great. So let's talk a little bit about military tuition assistance. What is that? Is there a difference between that and regular financial tuition assistance?

0:05:20 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, federal financial aid is primarily student loans. That has to be paid back to the government at some point once you're done going to school. Military tuition assistance is where your tuition is paid for by the Department of Defense up to a certain limit. Some schools tuition is a little is higher than the cap, but the military will cover, I believe it's up to like $750 per class, so the student only has to pay that excess over. Now, for example, at National University - and some other universities do it too - we reduce tuition for active duty and we particularly reduce it to be below the TA cap so they can go to school without having to pay any outreach. So it gives them even more incentive to go to school. There's really no excuse not to go.

0:06:03 - Kimberly King

I love those incentives they’re so important, and thank you for telling us about that point system too. So can you really tell us how does that tuition assistance work? I would imagine there is a lot of paperwork and that's where you kind of come in, is that right?

0:06:19 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, yeah, I mean, back when I was in it was all paper. You literally walked it from place to place to get all the signatures. These days, depending on where you're at and what branch you're in, you know like, for example, the Army has a whole system dedicated to education benefits called Army Ignite. The Navy has their own. So they have to initiate. They've never used tuition assistance before. We call it TA. They've never used TA before.

They have to do an orientation basically outlines their rights, what they're responsible for and what the consequences are for, like failing courses or having to stop in the middle because of deployment and how to handle those things. In some cases they have to attend the orientation in person at the education center on base, but in most cases it can be done online. It's mostly done virtually now. Once the orientation is done, then the student would get a degree plan from the school they plan to attend, basically just the list of the first few classes they're going to be taking, because the military requires that to ensure that they're actually in a degree or certificate program. They don't want to be paying for classes that are just random and not leading to something. We want the money to go toward actually earning a degree. That's going to have an insight in golf, versus while I was in, you could just take random classes here and they're never really finishing.

They wanted to put more focus on it. So now a degree plan has to be submitted. Once that tuition request is submitted, it goes through the chain. It'll go to their immediate command, then it'll go to their battalion or squadron or whatever kind of unit they're in. Then it eventually widows its way through to the base education office where the education service officer finally puts his blessing on it. Then it comes back through the system and the military member gets a tuition voucher and then they submit that to the school and that ensures that the school gets paid for the tuition and then they just get scheduled and go to class.

0:08:19 - Kimberly King

Wow, I'm sure the changes are pretty remarkable as far as, like you said, you used to have to go around and get those signatures. But what a great way to keep people on track and again kind of really giving them that next you know, assistance for what happens after the military, while they're in the military. I think this is a great program. Do all active servicemembers qualify for tuition assistance?

0:08:46 - Kenneth Gannon

Yes and no. What I mean by that is there are restrictions. In some cases, like for example the Army, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard they have access to tuition assistance benefits almost immediately after graduation from recruit training. Now some units may have a restriction, saying they want you to be, they want you to kind of acclimate after like 30 to 90 days before you request tuition assistance, to kind of get used to everything other units have, depending on where they're going to be deploying, they may not have reasonable access to the internet so they won't let students apply for tuition assistance knowing that if they're within a certain number of months of getting out of the military they're restricted.

The Navy is the only branch that has a very specific restriction. Active duty sailors cannot use tuition assistance benefits until they've completed three years of active service. They're the only branch that has that restriction. And as far as the reserve components go- Reserves, National Guard, for the Army and the Air Force they have access to tuition assistance. But essentially any branch that's on the water, their reserve components do not have tuition assistance. So there are some restrictions. But as far as like true active duty goes at some point they all have access to tuition assistance.

0:10:11 - Kimberly King

Boy, it's so great to have somebody like yourself in the position that you are, just that your knowledge is so great for people to be able to go to you for all of these questions. Are military personnel able to go to school, then, while stationed overseas or deployed?

0:10:28 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, especially if they're just getting what we call permanent change of station PCS. They may go from like in my case from like Camp Lejeune, to Okinawa, Japan, for a year. Well, you just go into Japan, you still have access to the internet, the base has the infrastructure and everything. You can still go to school. It runs the same.

The only thing they really have to keep in mind is like, for example, our school is based in California, so assignment due dates are based on California time. So they have to kind of keep that time difference in mind. But I always tell them it's like you're ahead, just keep in mind that you've got to have your assignments turned in by Sunday and you'll never be late because they're still, they're a day ahead of us anyway. So, you know. So I tell them that little strategy to use. As far as deployment goes, that can be sketchy but it's still possible. These days most places have reasonable access to the internet, depending on what they're doing and where they're at. So but they always tell them they need to check with their command to see what that feasibility is going to be, but it is possible. We have several students that are on ships that are deployed to, you know different countries and they're going to school on a regular basis.

0:11:38 - Kimberly King

So that kind of leads to my next question, and that is, if they are on ships or out at sea, are they able to go to school, or do I really kind of depend on the connection?

0:11:47 - Kenneth Gannon

On a ship, it can be a little sketchy.

That’s because it's all satellite internet, you know, and of course even the military they're kind of restricted by weather and things like that when it comes to satellite.

But as long as they know ahead of time and I always tell them if you're going to go to sea, just ask somebody who's done it, who's been there already what is the availability of internet, what is the time they look like? Am I going to have reasonable access a few days a week to do my coursework? The answer is almost always yes. There may be days where they may not have access to the internet just because of weather or whatever, because it is satellite on a ship. But I always just tell them just don't procrastinate, do your work, try to be a little bit ahead of the game and that when you do have a day where you don't have internet access, you're not stressed about it. But if something happens, all you really have to do is communicate with the professors, let them know what the situation is and they'll make the adjustment for them. They get it. A lot of our students are military, so they make those adjustments for them.

0:12:48 - Kimberly King

You're such a great mentor. I love your advice on that. What types of questions should a military student be asking schools to ensure it is military friendly and can maximize their benefits?

0:13:00 - Kenneth Gannon

A lot of questions they could ask. The primary one I always tell them is do you have discounts for active duty? You know what is your active duty rate? A lot of schools will, knowing that tuition assistance will only cover up to a certain amount. Now, some schools don't, some schools only discount it a little bit. But that's an important question - what is your active duty tuition rate? What is the overall cost of the entire course? That way they can determine okay, can I afford the access out of pocket? How am I going to pay for that? Also, they also they want to know - does that school accept tuition assistance? You'd be surprised how many accredited schools out there will not accept military tuition assistance, just because they don't know how to process it. You know, they just don't understand how it works. They don't understand they have to wait on a voucher, so they just choose not to deal with it all. So a lot of active duty members are kind of left out in the cold. If that's the only school that they think they have an option, thank goodness for the internet. They've got everything open to them now. So if there's a school that doesn't want to, essentially, get with the program and figure out how to make their system work with tuition assistance, there's other options for the military.

I tell them stay away from those schools. You have TA as a benefit, use it. Don't cut into your personal finances. You're earning this benefit. You need to let the military pay for it and if that school doesn't want to accommodate, find one that will. There's a lot of good schools out there. And then waivers. You know some schools will offer specific waivers for military, like at National for active duty. We will provide waivers to cover the cost of electronic textbooks and technology fees. Some will reduce the cost. Some will give them waivers for like, the first two or three classes of textbooks free. There's lots of different incentives for active duty. So it's worth asking to know how you're going to plan for it, because even though tuition assistance covers tuition that's all it covers - the military members still are responsible for the cost of books and for the cost of any fees, technology lab fees, those kinds of things. So knowing what they're going to be responsible for and for how long is important so they can budget for it.

0:15:14 - Kimberly King

Great. Well again. It's so good to have you in that position to be able to point them in the right direction. Who is there a counselor who helps these students put together their class schedules? Does National provide counselors for them to help choose the right courses?

0:15:30 - Kenneth Gannon

Oh yeah, yeah, the students here, they have a whole team of people that that helped them out. You know like it starts with me. I talk to them about the programs. I find out what they want, what they want to do, because a lot of times the program that they're inquiring about just by name they think it's going to work, but when I find out a little bit more about what they really want to accomplish, I can say, no, that's not what this does. This is the program we need. Well, once we figure out the program, I help them get to the enrollment process, but then they get an enrollment specialist who's going to verify a few things. They get them scheduled for class if they want to go to a campus. If they happen to be in California with us, they can. They've got the option. They'll try to get them scheduled for classes that fit their schedule or get them scheduled for online.

They also have a new student advisor assigned to them. Because a lot of these guys, this is the first time they've ever done online school or school at all. So an online new student advisor gets assigned to kind of walk them through on the first day of class, make sure they're able to log in, show them where everything's at, and they hang out with them for the first couple of weeks in case they have questions or run into problems and don't know how to use something. So they've got a Johnny on the spot until they get comfortable and then they've got an academic finance advisor that sticks with them through the entire program to make sure their courses are scheduled on time, make sure there's no glitch with payment and to get any problems resolved before they become real problems.

0:16:50 - Kimberly King

Right, okay, great. Wow, I love what you're doing. This is some great information. We just need to take a quick break. Stay with us more in just a moment, don't go away. And now back to our interview with National University's Executive Enrollment Advisor, Ken Gannon. And we're discussing how to go to college while on active duty, and so, Ken, I wanted to ask you a little bit about if they have trepidation or some cold feet and, you know, just trying to put their packages together with all that paperwork. What would you suggest to those people?

0:17:29 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, cold feet happens a lot. They get all excited when they're first, at the first prospect to go into school and then, when it becomes real, all of a sudden they're like I don't think I can do that… it's usually just a lot of self-doubt.

So what I usually do is I take the time to try to find out what's really causing the trepidation. Is it really their schedule? Most time it's just a smoke screen, it's just a convenient excuse. But as you dig down you find out that they're just afraid, they're just not that confident in their ability to do it, and then I just try to settle them down by letting them know that they're not the only one. They're actually part of the majority.

Everyone's got a little bit of anxiety about going back to school, especially if they've never gone to college or if it's been a while and just kind of talking through what they're going to be doing, how the system works. You know that it is on their own schedule and all the support that they have available to them as they're going through school. They've got a lot of cheerleaders there to help make sure that they make it to graduation. So they don't have to really be afraid. And do they really want, you know, three years from now, to be thinking, God, if I'd just stayed in school, I'd be done right now. I'd already have my degree.

You know you don't want the what if? You know, I've done that, and I share that with them. It's like I made convenient excuses and then next thing I know I'm retiring, and it's like I've got no degree, I've just got a few classes. So then I had to play catch up. And I don't recommend that to anybody. So it's like just get it done and you'll be happier for it. Once you get started it feels like a pack is on and it's just you wonder why you ever even stressed about it in the first place.

0:19:11 - Kimberly King

And I like that example. Sometimes we learn and we can share with others about you know what worked for us, what didn't work for us, so thank you for sharing that. What are some school features military personnel should be looking for?

0:19:26 - Kenneth Gannon

Well, particularly for military, flexibility of the classes. That's a big one, you know. If it's a campus based school that doesn't have any kind of an online option, do they offer weekend classes? Do they offer classes that fit a military member’s work schedule? Because a lot, you know, there are some jobs that are working midshifts or graveyard, third shift, you know. Do you know? Does the school offer classes that are going to always accommodate their particular work schedule? Do they have options to be on campus or online, depending on the shifting of the work schedule? What are their attendance requirements?

Sometimes you may get on- You may, at the last moment, realize that you're on duty and you can't make it to class. You know, do they provide any kind of accommodations for things like that? What if you know you're in class and all of a sudden you get orders to go on a deployment that you weren't expecting? It doesn't happen often, but it does happen, you know. Like you know. Case in point- Desert Shield, Desert Storm. Everything's all fine, you're watching CNN. Next thing, you know, you're getting called at three o'clock in the morning to grab your stuff and… wait until something happens. But you need to know what the school's policy is toward those kind of orders. You know, are you going to pause my program or is it going to be any kind of financial penalty, that kind of thing? And another thing, is the school a member of the Servicemember's Opportunity Colleges?

We call it the SOC. It's just a consortium of schools that you know, the Department of Defense got together with, because, even though people don't realize that, the DOD really does want its military members to get an education, they want that for them, but they don't want them wasting their time either.

You know, military people move around a lot, and it was, you know. You know, back in the day they would start at one school, they'd get maybe a year worth of school done and they get orders and they have to move across the country and now the next school they're going to maybe only takes a third of those credits. So it's five steps forward, 10 steps back. It's like you're never making any progress. So what the SOC does is they've given them kind of an agreement that they're going to do the best they can to accept the most credits possible so that the military members continue making progress regardless of where they go. And now, with the advent of online school, that's becoming less and less of an issue because your school goes with you where we go. But it's still nice to know that there are schools out there that kind of entered this unofficial agreement that they're just going to work together for the military.

0:22:11 - Kimberly King

Okay, good. So what about college credits? Does military training count?

0:22:17 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, yeah, formal military training does carry with it college credit. However, we don't you know, the military doesn't trust the colleges to make that conversion because they don't know what goes into that training. So each branch is able to get you know, like the Army, the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard. They get what's what we call a JST, a joint services transcript, where all the all their formal training is listed and it has college credit applied to it, how many credits and at what level. The Air Force actually has their own community college, so they get their transcript from the community college and the Air Force. It's not an actual physical school, but it is accredited and that's where their training sits and we use those transcripts to transfer as much as we possibly can from the military experience.

0:23:07 - Kimberly King

Okay, what about does a servicemember go? How do they go about getting a transcript for their training?

0:23:18 - Kenneth Gannon

So for those that have to get a joint service transcript, there's a DOD- They can use what they call a CAT card. It's their ID card. They can log into the system and just download one right there on the spot, or they can go to a DOD website and it's very simple. I mean, I do it all day. Every day I just go into Google and type in JSEO JST and the very first option is the website to register. It's a DOD website. You register there and you're able to order an official transcript be sent to the school and you can even download an unofficial right there on the spot as often as you want.

Community College of the Air Force, they have to go to the Air University website and request a college transcript, just like you would for a little bit of a college. Typically, I think it's through the Parchment system for electronic, but yeah that you know the other, like I said, Community College of the Air Force, I think they have to pay for the official transcript just because it is a provider service, just like colleges use, but the other branches using the JSEO system it's as often as they want, whenever they want.

0:24:23 - Kimberly King

Good, this is all great information that they can just call on you and ask. So this is great. What happens if they can't continue due to military obligations?

0:24:34 - Kenneth Gannon

Okay so if they can't continue because of military obligations, then they need to get with their academic advisor at their school. Every school's got academic advisors, you know, because in some cases you can provide a copy of your orders, because if you're getting deployed as a unit, they issue military issues, what they call group orders. Their admin office will give them a copy of it so they can just send their school if that's their policy, send a copy of those group orders and then they'll put them on like a leave of absence or whatever they need to do. Now, like, for example, like here at National, we put them… it's like a leave of absence, we call it something else, but essentially, it's good for six months, because most deployments are six months or less. So we just basically put them on hold. They deploy. Once they come back, they let us know and they essentially just pick up where they left off. Now, if they're out of attendance for more than a year - and this is going to be true pretty much in school - and that's, you know, it's just the way it is, but it's really just an admin drill. If they're out of attendance for more than a year they're typically withdrawn from the program, but at National they can just come back. They go through our reentry people and they just get restarted right where they left off, as if they never left. They just have to go through the whole application process again. But it's a little quicker because we already have everything okay, we've already got all the documents.

0:26:01 - Kimberly King

Yeah, that would be awful to have to stop and start, but at least, yeah, you got it, I got the ball rolling.

0:26:10 - Kenneth Gannon

That's why it's important for the military people to ask those questions in the beginning. Because if a school doesn't have a policy, then they're going to be the ones left holding the bag if they do deploy it out of the school.

0:26:24 - Kimberly King

Wow. So are there any degree types that could pose a problem for active duty military and their families?

0:26:33 - Kenneth Gannon

Yes, most are okay, but there are some like, for example, licensed therapists, people who want to become therapists, people who want to become teachers, nurses anything that requires some kind of state certification or licensing typically has to be done in that state. There are some exceptions. But there is also an in-person component- clinicals, student teaching, internships, those kinds of things you know, and those programs aren't short. I mean, the nursing you can do in a couple of years, but you know, counseling that could be a four or five, six year program. So whether it's a spouse of active duty or an active duty member that's pursuing that - and it's typically spouses - One of the first things I ask them how long have you been where you are? When do you anticipate getting orders? Because if they say, oh, we're going to get orders in the next two years and it's a four-year program, I tell them it's not a good idea because you have to attend it here. You have to be in California, for example, with our programs to get this license. You could go and get the curriculum, but there's no guarantee that if you go to North Carolina or Illinois that they're going to accept any of these credits. You may start all over again and those are difficult programs so I always make them, you know, think ahead.

I mean, I understand they want to do that and in some cases, if they know they're going to be getting orders, then it's not the best fit. But there are some cases hey, we just got here, we're going to be here a while. Okay, then we can, we can roll, but I do still let them know the expectation. Hey, if something comes up and you have to and your husband or wife gets orders before you're done with the program, depending on how far you are in the program, you may have to choose that you stay and finish it, because that's it's... They're expensive, it's a huge investment in time and money. So and those are decisions that have been made by students and I don't want to try to help them avoid it, I don't want them to be surprised by it, so that if that event, reality comes up, they're like, Okay, I was told about this, they're not stressed out about it, they can plan ahead.

0:28:46 - Kimberly King

Okay, okay, good point. So what advice do you have for anyone on active duty considering going back to school to earn their degree?

0:28:56 - Kenneth Gannon

Go. You know, don't procrastinate, don't make excuses. You know I mean, I did it. I mean I always use my story. I mean I joined the military just so I could help get some help paying for school and I spent 20 years making convenient excuses why I couldn't. You know, I mean… I deployed a lot, I mean I was going a lot and of course when I first joined there was no internet so you had to rely on a campus. But when I was back I probably could have, but I chose not to and then I regretted it on the back end.

You know I don't want any of our military students having the woulda coulda shoulda when they finally get out, knowing that they've got this money sitting there to help them pay for school while they're active duty, even though they're going to be getting the GI bill which will help pay for school after the fact. Why not get as much done while you're active duty so you can use that GI bill for something else, for a higher degree or certifications or whatever? You know, just get it done. You're going to benefit from it while you're on active duty and it’ll help you get promoted. It'll make you feel more confident, and plus, when you get ready to transition to the civilian world. You've already got a degree under your belt. It makes applying for jobs that much easier. You don't have to explain it like I did. I had to do a lot of tap dancing to explain the experience. To get around why I didn't have it. So I don't want anybody to have to go through that. Just use the benefit, it’s there. Don't let it go.

0:30:18 - Kimberly King

I love it. That's such great advice and you can really see your passion. So you know, you kind of turned your pain into your passion and now you're helping others.

0:30:28 - Kenneth Gannon

Yeah, it was not fun and I don't want anybody to go through it if they don't have to.

0:30:32 - Kimberly King

Right, right. Well, thank you so much for your time today and also thank you for your service and love what you're doing. If you have and want more knowledge, you can visit the National University's website at And thanks again, so much for your time today.

0:30:48 - Kenneth Gannon

Thank you.

0:30:51 - Kimberly King

You've been listening to the National University podcast. For updates on future or past guests, visit us at You can also follow us on social media. Thanks for listening.

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