A Guide to Online Colleges forMilitary Personnel and Veterans

Ron Kness

Ron Kness Ron Kness retired from military service after 36 years. During his time as Supervisor of Military Personnel Services, which included Education Benefits, he gained tremendous experience with the GI Bills, Yellow Ribbon Program, scholarships and loans for college. He last served as Sergeant Major/E-9 in the 34th Infantry Division.

Introduction

Distance learning is a method of teaching where time, distance (or both) separate the instructor from the student. While the depth and breadth of distance learning, and especially online instruction, was limited in scope just a few years ago, it has gradually become a mainstream educational option for thousands college students. In 2012, an estimated 6.7 million post-secondary students took at least one class online.

Students of all types gravitate to online education for numerous reasons. For non-traditional students such as those in the military, flexibility may be the most alluring benefit. The ability to log on while deployed or restationing makes it easier to complete a course and work toward a degree. Before applying to online programs, however, it’s important to fully understand who offers them and how they work, both in general and in conjunction with the GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program and other military-sponsored higher education initiatives.

The following guidebook provides servicemembers, veterans and their families with a clear and comprehensive look at online colleges and distance learning. It combines expert insight and college and military resources into a single, easy-to-use document.

Why Distance Learning for Service Members and Vets?

Re-stationing and deployment can make attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school impractical. And transferring to a new college means risk of losing credits and spending eight years getting a degree you could’ve earned in six. To avoid losing credits, students should always choose schools that are part of the Service Member’s Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium. To avoid delaying graduation, students in the military should consider online learning.

To participate in distance learning, the only requirements are a computer and a broadband Internet connection; with both, classes can be accessed anytime from anywhere in the world, making re-stationing and deployments non-issues as far as hindering a post-secondary education.

The other great benefit with the distance learning option is flexibility. Since many schools have everything needed posted on their class websites, access is unlimited without regard to time zones. Many service members are getting degrees through distance learning programs without ever setting foot in a traditional classroom.

Most of the service branches have some type of virtual portal for students use to request Tuition Assistance, Tuition Assistance Top-Up, research education options, register for and manage college classes for their online course of study. Once such portal is GoArmyEd. With this program, the Army also automated many of the paper-based systems that were previously used, making it now easier and faster to register for classes and consult with Military Education Counselors regardless of the service member’s duty location.

Online Learning Modes

The delivery of distance education today can generally be broken down into two types – synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous or “real-time” distance learning resembles a traditional classroom in that all the participants are “present” or connected to the instruction provider at the same time, albeit remotely. Delivery methods include web conferencing, videoconferencing, direct-broadcast satellite, internet radio, live streaming and more. Online meeting software such as Adobe Connect and Citrix GoToMeeting have made the videoconferencing method of instruction more robust and efficient.

The asynchronous method of delivery does not require all participants to be present at the same time. Message board forums, email, podcasts, video and audio recordings are all forms of this type of instruction delivery. Because it allows students to access materials according to each of their schedules, it has quickly become the delivery of choice by military personnel and veterans due to its flexibility.

For example, 47% of veteran students are married and have children. Many of these veterans are stay-at-home parents. They find the asynchronous online method works better for them because they can do their coursework after the children are in bed and in smaller chunks of time throughout the day. Or they may be holding down a full-time job outside the home. They do their schoolwork either early in the morning before going to work or in the evenings after coming home.

Online Education and Combat Soldiers

Many combat-hardened veterans find they can’t tolerate taking classes on campus after having been in a war zone (some of them multiple times). A typical college campus environment consists of large crowds and loud noises – the very two things most of them try to avoid. Nearly 20 percent of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) according to a 2008 RAND study. War veterans with PTSD avoid the stressful on-campus environment by taking online courses from the sanctity of their own home. The online option gives them an education choice today that was not widely available to their brothers-in-arms just a few years ago.

Is Online Learning Right for You?

All learning modes – campus, online, hybrid – come with similar requirements for success: discipline, motivation and experience with various resources and tools, to start. Yet students who choose to learn online may need higher levels of self-determination, focus and other factors to perform well and complete a degree. The following list outlines some of the core skills, traits and interests that future distance learners should have or acquire:

  • Basic computer skills. Taking an online class – or completing an entire program – means possessing basic computer skills: navigating files, the internet, word processing, spreadsheets and other software. Students who take courses in tech-focused disciplines may need to use specific web platforms or design/drafting tools. Before enrolling in an online program, research tech recommendations and requirements carefully.
  • Self-discipline. Some people thrive on face-to-face interaction; they do best in a classroom environment. While online students do interact with professors and peers via telephone and Skype calls, communication is generally written. Therefore, online students need to be diligent with their scheduling and communication to ensure nothing slips through the proverbial cracks.
  • Organization. All college learning requires organization. Yet with online education, students often have myriad responsibilities to juggle, including multiple classes, family, work and everything in-between. Students who succeed in online learning environments report that organization is the key.

Types of Online Military Colleges

There are basically two types of military colleges online, those with a military focus and those that are military-friendly.

Military Focus

While all the major service branches have their own academies, along with many public and private military schools, none of them offer courses online. Two popular military colleges do offer courses online – American Military University (AMU) and Norwich University. AMU is the number one online military college provider to the U.S. Armed Forces. While primarily a military college online, it does have education representatives stationed on military installations across the U.S.

AMU

Founded in 1991 by a Marine Corps officer, its only mission is to educate those who serve. It accomplishes its mission by:

  • Having a dedicated support team available anytime a student needs help.
  • Offering flexible, online course schedules that let students study when and where they want.
  • Keeping tuition rates low to help limit student out-of-pocket costs, regardless if the student is paying for the course out-of-pocket or using Tuition Assistance (TA), the GI Bill or federal financial aid.
  • Providing military grants.
  • Waiving certain fees that other schools charge, such as for technology and transferring credits.
  • Considering credit for military education and training courses including CCAF, JST, DANTES, and ACE-evaluated training.
Norwich University

In 1819, Captain Alden Partridge founded Norwich University in Norwich, Vermont as “The American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy”. His mission was “to produce enlightened and useful citizen-soldiers” through a model of teaching military science mixed with civilian studies. His education model at Norwich was the basis for several military academies and private military schools in operation today. Norwich University is also the birthplace of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and has programs for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force cadets.

Currently Norwich offers two bachelor’s degree programs in its military college online program: Criminal Justice, and Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis. It also offers nine online military college degrees at the master’s degree level:

  • Diplomacy
  • History
  • Military History
  • Business Administration
  • Civil Engineering
  • Public Administration
  • Information Security & Assurance
  • Leadership
  • Nursing

Military-friendly

When looking for a military college online, it is important to ask a lot of questions. Most of your questions will likely fall into five general areas:

  • Principles of Excellence
  • Fees and Tuition
  • General Course Information
  • Non-Traditional Credit Opportunities
  • Accreditation
Principles of Excellence

Ask or research if the school is a participating member of Executive Order 13607, Principles of Excellence program. If so, the school agrees to:

  • Provide each student with a complete breakdown of total education costs of a chosen degree program.
  • Explain GI Bill coverage for all military and veteran students that plan on using their GI Bill education benefits.
  • End fraudulent and aggressive recruiting practices.
  • Accommodate active duty members and Selected Reservists absences due to service requirements, such as training, deployments or re-stationing.
  • Designate an advisor to each student to provide sound academic and financial advice.
  • Ensure accreditation of all new programs prior to enrolling students in those programs.
  • Align institutional refund policies with those under Title IV, the governing code for the administration of federal student financial aid programs.

For students wanting only to consider Principle of Excellence schools, a good tool to use is Weam’s School Search site. Enter the institution’s name and click on Submit. If more than one school listing is returned, select the appropriate campus by clicking on its link. If the school has a Principles of Excellence agreement, it will be listed on the institution’s profile page.

How to Choose an Online College and Program

With the proliferation of for-profit-only schools, one has to ensure the degree obtained has true value in the working world. For veterans going to school under the GI Bill, the first consideration should be school accreditation. In particular, is the school VA approved?

The Importance of Accreditation

One tool available to make this determination easier is the Weam’s School Search Tool. Insert the school’s name in the Institution Name field. If not decided on a particular school, click on a State and then the Submit button. Start researching the schools from the returned list of approved schools by clicking on a school link.

Once inside a school listing, click on Programs and then Institution of Higher Learning to see the courses they offer. Contact the school or view their website to determine if the school offers a particular degree plan online.

Note: Keep in mind tuition rates may be higher if the student has to pay out-of-state tuition or chooses a private school. To keep out-of-pocket costs minimal, the lowest tuitions are usually at public schools in the student’s state of residency. The Post 9/11 GI Bill only pays up to the resident rate at public schools or up to $19,198.31 per year at private schools. The Montgomery GI Bill pays the veteran a fixed amount and s/he has to pay their own tuition out of that amount (and buy books).

By choosing a VA-approved school, students benefit from knowing they’ll not only be able to use the GI Bill, but that their chosen school’s accreditation is:

  • A reliable indicator of the quality of the school
  • Evidence that their programs of study are approved
  • Assurance of qualified Instructors
  • Recognized by employers and schools nationwide as a quality school
  • Evaluated and improved on a continual basis by the school itself

Credit for Military Training and Experience

Another indicator of a school’s military friendliness is its policy on accepting credits awarded for military training courses, schools and experience. The American Council on Education (ACE) recognizes the educational value of military training and the role it can play towards obtaining a degree. They evaluate each enlisted, warrant officer and some officer job descriptions and translate them into credits. ACE continually evaluates and updates military training courses and occupations to determine the number of credits each is worth and how credits can apply towards a degree.

For example an 11B Infantryman MOS job description in the ACE guide states:

” Leads, supervises, and serves as a member of an infantry unit of 10-20 persons, employing individual weapons, machine guns, and anti-armor weapons in offensive and defensive ground combat. “

ACE evaluates the MOS and writes a summary for each skill level. At the E-6 level, the summary reads:

” Able to perform the duties required for Skill Level 20; as a first-line supervisor, directs the utilization of personnel and equipment; coordinates unit actions with adjacent and supporting elements; insures proper collection and reporting of intelligence data. “

Based on their summary, they make a credit recommendation of:

” In the vocational certificate category, 3 semester hours in mechanical maintenance. In the lower-division baccalaureate/associate degree category, 1 semester hour in map reading, 1 in first aid, 2 in record keeping, 3 in personnel supervision, 3 in human relations, and credit in surveying on the basis of institutional evaluation. “

So on a military evaluations program transcript, an E-6 11B Squad Leader would earn ten credits just off of the experiences and training in the 11B MOS. Multiple MOSs could possibly earn more credits in different categories. These ten credits translate into not having to take 3 three-credit introductory classes, if all credits are accepted by the school.

Current service members can claim military service credit by requesting a transcript from the applicable site below based on branch of service:

Once a school receives an official transcript, it evaluates the credits and determines which ones or how many it will accept and apply towards a degree. It pays to shop around as some institutions are more liberal at accepting credits for military service than others.

Veterans normally request their transcript through the JST, but can submit a completed DD-295 – Application For The Evaluation of Learning Experiences During Military Service to their school along with a copy of their DD-214 Discharge Form. DD-214s can be requested from the National Archives.

Non-Traditional Credit

When considering an online college, ask if it accepts CLEP, DANTES, and ACE credits and the maximum number of credits they accept. This amount can vary quite a bit between schools. Being able to transfer in credits can significantly shorten up the time to a degree and conserve GI Bill benefits that can be used toward an advanced degree in the future.

Post 9/11 GI Bill

Most of the GI Bills are straight-forward meaning they pay the veteran and the veteran is responsible to pay tuition and fees to the school. However, the Post 9/11 GI Bill is different in a couple of ways.

First, it pays a monthly housing allowance, but the amount is calculated differently for online-only students. Full-time students taking all courses online are paid up to $714.50 – about half of what students taking classes on campus are paid. However, if a student takes at least one class per semester on campus at a local school and the rest of their classes online, they can receive the full housing allowance. The key is the classes taken on campus have to be classes needed on their degree plan; otherwise the VA will not pay for the classes. If the VA will not pay for a class, it also reduces the number of credits taken in the eyes of the VA which in turn lowers the housing allowance and book stipend amounts paid to the student.

However note that resident on-campus classes must be coordinated and approved by the degree-issuing school – most likely the online school – prior to taking the classes. The amount of tuition paid by the VA to the school and book stipend paid to the student remain unchanged regardless if classes are in an on-campus or online setting.

Students have to be careful when taking hybrid or blended classes as these courses can be considered “distance learning” or online for housing allowance purposes, if the class does not meet the VA’s in-residence class definition. The VA defines it for undergraduate students as “regularly scheduled standard class sessions that meet at least once every two weeks and the total number classroom instruction (based on 50 minutes of instruction per hour) must equal, or be greater than, the number of credit hours awarded for the course multiplied by the number of weeks in the term.”

For example if a student is enrolled in a 3-credit course over a 16-week semester, the course participants must meet on campus at least every other week for a total of 48 hours of class sessions. Put another way, the class must meet in person, on campus 6 hours per week, every other week during the course of the semester to qualify as an in-residence class.

However, the VA’s in-residence training definition for graduate students is different. They must attend regularly scheduled standard class sessions, research either on or off campus, or do a combination of both.

The VA goes on to define distance learning as “consisting of interaction between the student and the instructor (who is physically separated from the student) through the use of communications technology instead of regularly scheduled, conventional classroom or laboratory sessions. Communications technology includes mail, telephone, audio or videoconferencing, computer technology (on-line internet courses or email), or other electronic means such as one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices.

Any courses that consists of some interaction using communications technology and some weeks of standard class sessions, but do not meet the requirements to be classified as in-residence training, are considered distance learning.”

Where this can really come into play is when a full-time veteran student takes one in-residence class and the rest online. S/he would be eligible for the full housing allowance by definition (taking a mix on online and on-campus classes) but if that one in-residence class is deemed distance learning by the VA, the student would get the online-only housing allowance of $714.50 instead of the full housing allowance – a reduction of about half of what the student was expecting.

Second when using the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the VA pays up to 100% of the tuition and fees directly to the school up to the resident rate (at a public school) or up to $19,198.31 per year (at a private school). If the student’s non-resident or private school tuition exceeds what the VA will pay, the difference is the responsibility of the student, unless the school has a Yellow Ribbon Program agreement with the VA.

Note: GI Bill pay rates, except the Post 9/11 GI Bill, are adjusted annually on October 1st; the Post 9/11 GI Bill rates are adjusted each year on August 1st.

The Yellow Ribbon Program

If applicable, eligible veteran students – those at the 100% Post 9/11 GI Bill tier – can save a great deal of money by using the Yellow Ribbon Program. Under this program, schools that choose to be Yellow Ribbon Schools enter into agreements with the VA. In the agreements, each participating school declares:

  • The percentage of tuition difference it agrees to pay or waive
  • Which program of studies are included in their agreement
  • How many students it accepts into its program annually
  • The maximum amount paid to each student each year

The VA in-turn agrees to pay an equal amount to the amount paid or waived by the school. Because the amount waived can go as high as 50%, the total between the two could wipe out the unpaid balance, thus leaving nothing left for the veteran student to pay. However schools can opt to pay a lower percentage meaning the VA would also pay a lesser amount; this would leave a small amount left for the veteran student to pay.

Also under this GI Bill, the VA will not pay for developmental classes taken online, as a hybrid or through distance learning – classes usually with course numbers less than 100. Students are responsible for the cost of these classes. This GI Bill will however pay for developmental classes taken on campus.

Tuition, Fees and Funding

The obvious (but important) question here of course is tuition cost per credit. But also inquire into any special fees or costs that might not be readily apparent. Special fees include things like lab fees, administration fees, or any other fees students are required to pay.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill generally pays fees common to all students, but might not pay fees applicable to certain degree programs. Veterans and military members using the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), but not Tuition Assistance (TA) or Tuition Top-Up, are responsible to pay their own tuition and fee costs.

For military students using TA, tuition is usually capped at $250 dollars per credit hour, not to exceed $4,500 per year. If tuition costs exceed this amount, students should inquire with the school about vouchers, discounts or scholarships they offer to lower the amount of out-of-pocket costs. They also have the option to pay for costs not covered by TA out of remaining unused MGIB or Post 9/11 GI Bill entitlement by using the Tuition Top-Up program.

Under this program, the service branch pays the total tuition cost. The difference between what the school charges and what TA pays is sent to the VA for reimbursement. The VA reimburses the service branch for the billed amount, converts the amount paid to months/days of entitlement and deducts that amount from the service member’s remaining old GI Bill entitlement. It is an excellent way to maximize MGIB benefits because TA picks up the bulk of the costs.

If students are using the Post 9/11 GI Bill with Tuition Top-Up, entitlement use is calculated differently. The VA deducts a full semester’s worth of entitlement regardless of how much (or how little) they reimburse the service branch.

Funding for Military Spouses: MyCAA

While not an online education program for military members or veterans, it is an important funding program for many military spouses. Managed by the Department of Defense, the program only allows spouses of active duty or Title 10 Selected Reserve members in the lower pay grades to participate in the program. Spouses of Coast Guard members are not eligible because the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security and not the Department of Defense. Specifically, the authorized military grades at the other service branches include:

  • E1 through E5;
  • W1 and W2;
  • O1 and O2.

Usually this group of spouses do not qualify for Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits transferred from their military spouse because military members in these grades most likely have not served for at least six years yet; at these lower pay grades, military families can use another pay check coming into the family finances. The MyCAA program educates military spouses so they can get better paying jobs than what they would otherwise be able to get without the training.

While in the program spouses can earn:

  • Associate’s degrees
  • Certifications
  • Licenses

The program authorizes each participating spouse up to $2,000 per year with a maximum amount of $4,000 over the course of the program. Under the current rules, MyCAA account users have up to three years to complete their approved education plans in portable career fields. Courses can be completed online, on campus or as hybrid.

Online learning is here to stay and will continue to grow. With schools, service branches and the VA all on board, service members, eligible military spouses and veterans can now complete their education goals regardless of stationing, deployment or other forces that interrupt getting a post-secondary education.

Important Questions to Ask

When considering a school ask questions such as:

  • What degree options are offered?
  • How long are courses?
  • Are the courses delivered in the classroom, online, or both?
  • How are online courses delivered
  • How do students interact with the teacher – especially with online courses?
  • What are course grade standards based on?

Resources