Browse through any military publication and you’re sure to get inundated with ads for online degrees from all sorts of schools. For some veterans, going to school online could be the way to go. However, there’s a problem. As noted by the by numerous reports and veterans advocacy groups, many online degrees offered by for-profit schools are leaving veterans with worthless degrees, piles of debt, and few job prospects. Therefore, before you enroll in an online problem, do some research, to protect yourself from predatory schools.
1. Make sure your degree is worth something and your credits will transfer.
College and university accreditation in the U.S. is confusing as hell.
Some “schools” are on the naughty list, so first and foremost you want to keep yourself out of the mess of having a worthless degree. Most schools you’ve heard of have some kind of accreditation. That basically looks like this: Most of your state universities, private universities, and brand-name, for-profit schools are accredited by one of the regional accrediting organizations. If the school you’re interested in is regionally accredited, it should make life a little easier if you need to transfer, especially within the same region.
In addition to that, there are some national accrediting organizations. These are typically found in schools focusing on religious curriculum, specific careers, or non-standard education methods (like distance, web, and correspondence courses). If your school is only nationally accredited and you need to transfer, then you could run into unforeseen challenges.
For example, if you live in Ohio and are considering transferring to or getting a post-graduate degree from Ohio State University, check with the admissions and transfer folks to see if your credits from a for-profit school will transfer. If you know you want a career that needs a specific type of degree, check with the human resources staff at a national company in that field to see if there are any red flags.
What should you do? Your homework, and the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator is a good place to start.
If you have any doubt, err on the side of caution. This is your money, your benefits, and your time we’re talking about --- so make sure you do it right.
2. Don’t piss away your benefits.
One of the biggest benefits of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is the monthly housing allowance.
Every month, the VA pays out what an E-5 with a family would receive in basic allowance for housing for that area (this is the zip code for the school, not for your house.).
But, if you’re going to school exclusively online, you get a set amount no matter where the school is. This year, the housing allowance for an online-only school is only $754.50 per month.
Say you live in southern California and are weighing your options between San Diego State University and an online school. In a classroom at SDSU, you’d receive $2,052 per month in housing allowance benefits. That’s about $1,250 per month more than the online rate.
Another thing to keep in mind: If you’re planning to go part time or less, so six hours or fewer, then your monthly housing allowance is $0.
One another note: A lot of “military-friendly” schools set their rates at the maximum amount that the services will pay, just like an apartment complex near Camp Lejeune. This may not be a big deal, but if you plan to take more than three-to-six hours a semester, you may get to the point that you’re having to pay for some classes out of pocket.
3. Balance your schedule.
If you’re considering going to school online, chances are that’s because you are already doing something else. Maybe you’ve got a full-time job, or you’re still on active duty, or you’re fishing king crab.
While going to school online can be beneficial if you’ve got a tight schedule, it doesn’t mean you’ll be doing less work, and online classes sure as hell aren’t any easier.
Whether you’re sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer 12 hours a week, you should expect an additional three hours of coursework per class per week. Do you actually have this much time in your life to devote to school?
If you’re not sure, then pro tip: you probably don’t. So start out slowly. Take one or two classes. Go from there.
4. Consider a community college.
It’s not sexy. It’s not elite.
But if you’re just starting out, planning on a career that doesn’t require an undergraduate degree, or heading back to school after several years and could use some time to get dialed in, it could be a good fit.
Added bonus, since community colleges focus on non-traditional students, these schools often offer night or weekend classes in addition to online courses. Some even offer special hybrid courses where you spend an hour or two a week in the classroom, and do the rest of your work online.
It also helps to ensure you aren’t placed in that “online only” purgatory of the G.I. Bill housing allowance, which puts some extra cash in your pocket.
But, not all things are created equal. Some states have guaranteed transfer/admissions policies for community colleges and others don’t.
Just like anything else, do your homework and check with the school you may be transferring to upfront so you know the deal.
5. Check out the state schools.
Did you know you can get a legit, no B.S. degree from many state schools without setting foot on campus? The big state universities are no dummies, and many have realized that they can appeal to a lot of potential students by offering online programs.
For you, all of this is good news. It means you get the same type and quality of degree as if you were in Tuscaloosa or Gainesville without being there, and you’ll know that what you earn is worth what you invested.