You’re leaving the military and ready to go to college, armed with some very generous education benefits.

So what now?

If you’re like most other transitioning service members, you have a lot of questions about when to start researching colleges, what school to attend and what subject to study.

We asked a team of higher education and transition experts for their advice.

1. When should I start planning?

If you ask military transition education counselor Laura Brown, the answer is now.

“The biggest thing is start early,” said Brown, who advises transitioning service members at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “The earlier they start, the more options they have.”

If you’ve already pinpointed a school or two, starting early gives you time to carefully review admissions requirements.

This is crucial for meeting deadlines, so you can get your application, recommendation letters, essays and transcripts in on time, said Tabitha Maser, an education technician at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. You also need to find out if a standardized admissions test is required, she added.

Look at programs available to you in your last months of service, such as on-the-job training or the Transition Assistance Program’s higher education track, that can help you make your decisions sooner rather than later, Brown said.

“Of course (in TAP), they’re required to have a plan,” she said. “It’s really better if they can have a ... plan A, plan B, plan C.”

2. What’s my end game?

When you were a kid, you probably heard the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” more times than you can count.

Now it’s time to remember your answer — or come up with a totally different one — so you can get the most out of your college education.

“The No. 1 thing to consider when selecting a college or university while transitioning from the military is to consider your future career goals first, then work your way back from there,” said Christopher Tipton, director of veterans initiatives at the University of Maryland University College, one of the top enrollers of students using the GI Bill.

Some people can go to college, take general education classes and have the lightbulb turn on that way, Brown said. But not most people.

“Statistically, we have more success if we have a career goal in college,” she said.

Identifying your end game may be easier said than done. After all, you’ve just spent years or decades mastering a set of skills that may not directly translate to the civilian workforce.

Brown suggests taking a strengths assessment to identify potential careers. You could also find someone in your field of interest to shadow for a day or go on a facility tour to get a sense of the environment you’d be getting into, she said.

Also consider what’s most important to you in a job, such as salary, benefits, geographic location and work-life balance, Tipton said in an email. Write them down, and make sure you have the list handy when you’re researching potential careers.

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“You only have 36 months of entitlement if you are using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, so this step is critical to ensuring that you graduate ― without going into debt ― into a job and career field that you will enjoy,” he said.

Your future career goals are the first thing to consider when picking a college after the military, said Christopher Tipton, pictured left, director of veterans initiatives at the University of Maryland University of College. (Christopher Tipton)
Your future career goals are the first thing to consider when picking a college after the military, said Christopher Tipton, pictured left, director of veterans initiatives at the University of Maryland University of College. (Christopher Tipton)

3. What should I study?

Once you’ve identified your end game, it’s time to pick an academic program that will help you get there.

While you’re researching potential careers, look up job advertisements in that field and see what degree programs employers are looking for, Tipton suggested. Also, take note of careers that don’t require a specific major, then consider a major that grants you more credits for your military experience.

But “do not limit yourself to majors and career fields based on your military occupation,” Tipton said.

“This is your one shot to pursue the career field that you want to pursue, not the one that you tested into when you joined the military. Go back to your career search if you are choosing a degree solely based on what you did in the military.”

4. How do I know what type of school is right for me?

Now that you’ve narrowed down the search to schools with your desired major, there are many other factors to consider. These include location, accreditation, family needs and future career goals, Maser said in an email. Because people’s needs and priorities differ, she recommends seeing a base education specialist for tailored advice.

Brown recommends going to a school that has an established history, legacy and traditional, brick-and-mortar campus, even if you plan to take classes online.

“There’s so many schools in the landscape that are just classrooms and office buildings out there,” she said. “I would encourage (transitioning service members) to reach for the top rung on the education ladder and reach as high as they can to get the most out of their benefits and to make the most impact on their lives.”

That said, don’t discount community colleges or technical schools, which can be good starting points, a couple of our experts advised.

“Many students fail to look at community colleges when transitioning out of the military,” said Tipton. “The truth is, community colleges are great and often have more resources for student veterans initially enrolling in college.”

However, he said, make sure you get the 411 on the transfer process before enrolling and begin to lay out your plan to transfer to a four-year school early on.

Barrett Bogue, vice president of public relations and chapter engagement at Student Veterans of America, said it’s important to start the selection process with a positive mindset.

“Don’t self-select out of attending school, and don’t limit the kinds of schools that you would consider,” he said.

And if you’re wondering whether you’re college material, he wants you to know this: “You are.”

When researching schools, be sure to look up veteran graduation and retention rates, advises Barrett Bogue of Student Veterans of America. (Student Veterans of America)
When researching schools, be sure to look up veteran graduation and retention rates, advises Barrett Bogue of Student Veterans of America. (Student Veterans of America)

5. What makes a college or university a good school?

So you found a school that has your major, and you’ve already started following their football team. But have you asked the important questions?

For Bogue, these include, “What is the veteran graduation rate at this school?” and, “What is the retention rate for veterans at this school?” And if the information you’re looking for isn’t available online, ask the school directly, he said.

You can find a lot about a school’s academic track record via the Education Department’s College Navigator site and the Veterans Affairs Department’s GI Bill Comparison Tool. These resources also include important information about cost.

For someone eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the 100-percent level, meaning they either served at least 36 months or were discharged due to a service-connected disability, the benefit covers the cost of in-state tuition at a public school. The maximum covered at a private or for-profit school for the current school year is $22,805.34.

Don’t let the sticker price deter you, though. Many private schools participate in Yellow Ribbon, Brown said. Under that voluntary program, schools can make an agreement with the VA to split the school costs not covered by the GI Bill, reducing or eliminating the amount that students must pay themselves. You can see if a school participates in Yellow Ribbon by looking on the VA’s website.

It’s also important to research what a school is doing to support students like you.

“Schools across the country are competing to attract veterans to their campuses, so make sure your school is doing something — anything — to support student veterans,” Tipton said, giving examples such as military-specific financial aid, job placement assistance and a student veterans organization.

Bonus question: Is there a veterans group on campus?

“Our research shows that you are more likely to graduate if you get connected into a peer network on campus,” Bogue said of student veterans.

SVA has more than 1,500 chapters on college campuses in the U.S. and four countries that offer the chance to connect with fellow students with similar backgrounds.

“By getting connected into the chapter, they’re much more likely to have an identified space on campus to study, to hang out, to host programming,” Bogue said. “If there’s not a chapter there, then please find a peer network to get connected into.”