Servicemembers can earn degrees downrange, at home or in a classroom

By Melissa Renahan, Military Spouse and Writer

Servicemembers can agree – one serious perk of military service is undoubtedly the money they can receive, whether using Tuition Assistance or the GI Bill, for schooling that can range from undergraduate degrees to technical certifications. At military bases worldwide there are a variety of colleges, but the harder choice than which school is how to pursue the degree; choices include distance learning, traditional classroom teaching or even a combination of both.

At University of Maryland University College there are approximately 55,000 active duty, reservists, veterans or dependents currently enrolled; that, combined with their presence on upwards of 150 installations, makes their military students a primary focus. All told, they boast a much higher online enrollment than traditional classes, with a split of 70 to 30 percent.

“We are very conscious of the demands on the military,” said Thomas Bailey, Ph.D., Director of the Psychology Department at UMUC. “Likewise, we’re attentive to the fact that the military and their dependents’ educational journey can be interrupted due to circumstances beyond their control.”

“When I served I dealt with one war, Desert Storm, whereas today they are faced with multiple wars and global events,” added Bailey, who retired from the Navy in 1995. “We want them to know that we can relate to their priorities.”

The primary belief that distance learning is better for the military stems from just this – the flexibility it allows. Students can take classes when they have time, whether that means taking one at a time or four concurrently, and they can also complete the work when their schedule permits.

“To be a military-sensitive institution you need to be sensitive to what sets them apart from civilian students,” said Phil McNair, Vice President of Academic Services at American Military University.

AMU, which just marked its 20th year in existence, is a completely online school that is open to anyone, but caters to Servicemembers and their families. Of their 97,000 students, 65 percent are military.

Though AMU has no ‘brick and mortar’ building to speak of, they do have Military Outreach Coordinators who are divided up by region and travel to education centers on bases (they have visitation privileges at 85) to provide guidance and address concerns.

“Being entirely virtual enables us to employ many practitioners and select from a larger pool of better instructors,” said McNair. However, McNair, who also served in the military, was quick to explain that AMU provides training for its instructors who have no prior military experience themselves. Their instructors are also permitted to employ extensions for students as needed, especially with regard to deployments and training events.

Central Texas College, which has offices on 150 installations and a foundation in Ft Hood, has a student body made up of 60 percent military.

Like AMU, CTC’s attributes much of its online class popularity with an ongoing, rolling enrollment that allows for flexibility. In 2009, just under 40 percent of their student body was involved in distance learning.

“The distance-learning has shown larger growth, but honestly we’re not sure if that is due to location and deployments, rather than preference,” said Barbara Merlo of CTCPublic Relations & Marketing.

Regardless of whether you attend class physically or virtually, the cost has steadily increased; since 2000, public colleges and universities have increased tuition an average of five percent annually, while private colleges and universities have averaged 2.5 percent tuition annual increases.

Luckily, military have an advantage in this area. Depending on your branch of service, the following links can provide detailed information regarding the GI Bill, entitlements, tuition assistance and even scholarships for family members.

Click here for changes to the GI Bill:

So good luck and don’t forget to keep your head down…in those books!

– Melissa

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