Back to School: Starting School (Part 4 of 5)

This is part four of the Back to School series designed to be a step-by-step guide to make military members aware of the resources and education benefits that are available to assist in pursuing advanced education while on active duty. In part one Get Started with Self Assessments, you had a chance to take assessments that helped identify possible career fields that would best fit your unique skills, abilities, and work values. With this list of careers, part two provided tools that helped Explore and Narrow Your Options and begin to understand the qualifications that civilian employers prefer. Part Three provided tools to Map Your Route to Success by setting goals and choosing a degree or certification program to reach them. This article focuses on the next steps to actually getting started at a new college or university.

1.    Apply. Once you have done the work to prepare for school, as discussed in previous articles, your next step is to apply for the college or university of your choice. Most schools have applications online. While some schools offer no application fees for military members, most schools charge a non-refundable fee between $30-$75. During the application process, state-funded colleges and universities require certain documents to establish residency for tuition purposes. Be prepared to provide a copy of your orders if needed. Although each state has different residency requirements, since July 1, 2009, members of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) on active duty for a period of more than 30 days and his or her spouse, or his or her dependent children are be eligible to receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in the state where they reside or are permanently stationed. Once a Service member or their family members are enrolled and paying in-state tuition, they will continue to pay the in-state tuition rate as long as they remain continuously enrolled at the institution even if the Service member is reassigned outside the state.

2.    Send Transcripts. Most applications have an area where you list previously attended colleges and universities. You need to request a copy of your transcripts from each institution have you attended. Since you are in the military, you have the option of also sending your Joint Service Transcript (JST) and/or CCAF Transcript. These transcripts list recommended college credits you have earned from your military training, education, and occupational experiences. Click HERE for instructions on requesting your JST. Many military members have taken CLEP or DSST exams to obtain college credit for common general education requirements. To obtain your transcripts, click HERE .

3.     Placement Testing. If you need to take college level math or English, many schools require that you take a placement test first. This test will determine if you are ready for college level math and English courses or if you need to take developmental courses to prepare. The Online Academic Skills Course (OASC) is a free resource for military members and their family that can assess and improve academic readiness. Take the assessments in OASC as practice for the placement test. Your results will highlight your strengths and weaknesses. If there are areas where you need to improve, the course designs a custom set of lessons tailored to your specific needs. Click HERE to get started.

4.     Degree Planning. Once your school has had a chance to review your transcripts, you will be given an official degree plan. This will list the course you need to take in order to complete your degree. If you are using military tuition assistance (TA), you will need to supply a copy of your degree plan to the local or virtual education center. If you are attending a school that is a member of the Servicemember’s Opportunity College (SOC) Degree Network System (DNS), then you are eligible to request a SOC Agreement. This agreement is a contract for a degree issued by participating DNS colleges and it follows students through their academic career providing a complete evaluation of prior learning, including courses from other colleges and universities, military training courses, military occupational experience, and nationally recognized tests, as well as clearly identifying requirements for completing the degree. As long as you complete 25% of your degree with the school that you have a SOC Agreement with, you may take courses at other institutions and transfer them back to your original school to meet degree requirements. This is particularly helpful for military members and their spouses who prefer traditional classroom learning but have to change schools due to PCS moves.

5.     Register for Class. Once you have your degree plan, you will know which courses you need to take. Most schools will not issue an official degree plan until all transcripts are received. Since this may take a while and delay being issued a degree plan or SOC Agreement, consult your school’s Academic Advisor for course recommendations and registration procedures.

6.     Pay for classes. As a military member you have several options when paying for classes. The first option you should explore is TA though your local or virtual education center. Your Service may require online or face­­-to-face TA counseling prior to using TA for the first time. TA will pay for up to $4,500 per year of college coursework. The following are links to articles with other ways for paying for school:

TA Alternatives: Ways to Pay for College

Find Scholarship Money

Using Your Post 9/11 GI Bill on Active Duty

New Student Loan Counseling Tools

7.     Buy Books. A few colleges will supply free textbooks automatically when you register for a course. However, most schools require you to purchase books. To save money some students buy used books, take advantage of book rental programs, or purchase them from popular online discount bookstores. Check out Save Money in College with Cheaper Textbooks for more tips.

8.     Attend Class. Steps 1-7 above may seem like a lot to do, but with those accomplished you are ready to show up or log in to start your classes. Now the fun begins. Part 5 of this series will provide things you need to know as you navigate your way through your classes.