Online Education for Military Personnel

Online Education for Military Personnel

Military personnel are a growing market for online schools. Many schools design programs with the military learner in mind and develop marketing campaigns directed towards this prospective student base. What new opportunities are there for military servicemembers and veterans? In 2008 a new GI Bill was introduced that is more expansive than previous versions in its tuition allowance. The bill took effect in 2009 and that year the Department of Defense provided 377,000 military personnel with a total of $517 million in military tuition assistance. If you are a current military member considering online learning opportunities, I’ll share with you the resources that may be available to you and offer insight into what your experience as an online student might be like.

Resources for military personnel

The original GI Bill is called the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD) and a variety of degree programs are included in the list of approved educational options. The “MGIB program provides up to 36 months of education benefits,” and “benefits are payable for 10 years following your release from active duty.” This bill was revised with the introduction of the Post 9/11 GI Bill.  

A report by the American Council on Education (ACE), Military Service Members and Veterans in Higher Education: What the New GI Bill May Mean for Post-secondary Institutions, outlines the goals of the revised GI Bill: “the aim of this initiative is to promote access to and success in higher education for the nearly 2 million servicemembers and their families who will become eligible for newly expanded benefits.” Those 2 million servicemembers include the men and women who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to ACE, as of 2008 there are also an estimated 23.4 million veterans in the United States who may also have access to benefits.

The Post-9/11 GI-Bill is available for personnel with “at least 90 days of aggregate service after September 10, 2001, or individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days,” and “you must have received an honorable discharge to be eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.” There is a list of approved forms of training and within that list are undergraduate and graduate degree programs. There is a further classification titled Institutions of Higher Learning, which includes four year universities, community colleges, and advanced degree programs. This bill provides assistance for personnel who attend either non-profit or for-profit institutions.

The Yellow Ribbon Program, created by the Post-911 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, was also introduced in 2009. The purpose of this program is to allow colleges and universities to “voluntarily enter into an agreement with VA to fund tuition and fee expenses that exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition and fee rate in their state.” In addition, “the institution can contribute a specified dollar amount of those expenses, and VA will match the contribution-not to exceed 50% of the difference.” Contact your school to determine if they are a member of the program and what their level of contribution may be, if it is applicable for you.

The most recent change in education benefits for the military took place in 2010 and involved benefits for military spouses, MyCAA, made available by the Department of Defense (DoD). There are eligibility requirements concerning the maximum tuition allowed, along with a time limit, and it is only available for associate’s degree programs.

After introduction of these new bills came a Government Accountability Office report online education programs need DoD oversight,  which “called for greater oversight in the handling of DoD tuition assistance.” In response, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) developed a Voluntary Education Partnership and requires that all schools receiving DoD Tuition Assistance (TA) must sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The purpose of the MOU is to ensure that “all servicemembers participating in off-duty, postsecondary education programs are participating in quality education programs.” An institution will only receive approval for a student to attend if the signed agreement is on file. A sample agreement shows that there are specifications concerning course materials, accreditation, tuition, courses, financial aid use, and a degree program plan.

Choosing an online program

KMI Media Group, which produces several publications for the military and defense industry, including the Military Advanced Education Journal, has a searchable database called the 2012 Guide to Top Military-Friendly Colleges & Universities. There are 289 schools listed and you can search for a school by using criteria such as degree type, military support, financial support, and distance learning programs.

The Top 25 Military Friendly Colleges for 2012 list by VeteransBenefitsGIBill.com, which is owned and operated by Veterans Benefits GI Bill, is now available. The factors used to evaluate schools include:
1.    Access to financial aid, such as military tuition assistance
2.    Participation in the Post 9/11 GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon Program
3.    Availability of distance learning and online degree programs
4.    Participation in the MyCAA program
5.    Academic accreditation
The results list is very interesting because there are several of the larger for-profit schools that did not make the cut. The school that received the highest praise is Ashford University Online and it is described as “one of the best online colleges for military students because it’s affordable, flexible and credible. Ashford allows military students to transfer service and life experience to attain college credits, helping them to accelerate degree completion, and is both a fully accredited school and a member of the Service members Opportunity Colleges (SOC) consortium.”

The SOC consortium consists of approximately 1,900 degree-granting institutions, which provide “flexible policies that allow mobile servicemembers and their families to complete degrees rather than just accumulate course credit.” For additional information about obtaining college credits for past experience, please see my article Get Credit for Prior Learning Experience.

For Army personnel, a helpful resource is GoArmyEd, which is a “virtual gateway for all eligible Active Duty, National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers to request Tuition Assistance (TA) online, anytime, anywhere for classroom and distance learning.” Through this website you can manage all of your academic records and seek the assistance of educational counselors.

Becoming an online military learner

As an online instructor for multiple schools I have noticed an increase in the number of military learners in my classes over the last several years. One of the schools I’m on staff with is known for its programs that are specifically designed with the military student in mind. My experience is similar to the experience of other instructors and “although not every duty station is equipped for distance, or online, learning, most leaders agree that the U.S. armed services have a good record when it comes to facilitating troops' education.” The military students I’ve worked with have been able to gain Internet access on a regular basis, or at least have an opportunity to schedule a time for access.

A report by the American Council on Education (ACE) Military Service Members and Veterans in Higher Education: What the New GI Bill May Mean for Post-secondary Institutions lists some of the potential challenges that military learners encounter and that they may “find it difficult to finance their education, manage time constraints, transition from military life to student life, and overcome bureaucratic obstacles.”

While I have not dealt with those types of issues for my military learners, there are challenges these students encounter – especially when the class consists of military and non-military learners. I’ve observed that there are times during class discussions when the diversity prevents productive communication because their perspectives are so different. I encourage non-military students to ask questions that prompt communication with military students and I also ask military learners to consider how their experience and knowledge could translate to non-military settings, such as an organizational environment.

Overall, I’ve found as an instructor that the military students are often some of the most well-disciplined and motivated students. There is a high level of self-determination, strategic thought processing, and an ability to follow strict codes of conduct – including rules concerning academic honesty. If you are on active duty, or you are a veteran considering an online degree, check out the resources listed above for advice. In addition, be certain to locate sources such as education centers and education advisors on the military bases to confirm your eligibility for benefits. An online degree program could present you with an opportunity to gain advanced education and help you further develop your career interests and goals.
 
Are you currently an online military learner? If so, share your experience and feedback via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Chad Hunt/Corbis
 

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