Editor’s note: The following commentary was contributed by Dahn Shaulis, an Army veteran who researches higher education. The content may be edited for clarity, style and length.
Like military planning, “prior planning prevents piss poor performance.” And the more you know about your life’s missions — your allies, potential enemies and the college terrain — the better your results will be in graduating and finding good work after school.
1. Backward planning is essential in college choice. After you discharge, don’t use your GI Bill unless you have a clear idea of what you want to do and where you want to go. Find out what the future is for various occupations and what credentials are needed. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has a report that can tell you what the employment rates are for particular majors.
2. College is not for everyone all the time. There are alternatives, such as apprenticeships. The Department of Labor has a place where you can start looking, called the Apprenticeship Finder. Community colleges and labor unions may also offer no-cost or low cost training programs.
3. Don’t short-sheet your own bed. Cutting corners has consequences. Don’t use the GI Bill just to pay the rent or the car note. Don’t enroll in a school because it has few enrollment requirements. Don’t go to school exclusively online just because it’s more convenient. With the Forever GI Bill, there are no time limits, and you can transfer your GI Bill funds to a spouse or child. Be very careful in taking out student loans.
4. Be prepared for an ambush. Don’t even think about subprime colleges, no matter how friendly and inviting their enrollment pitches may be. By subprime, I am referring to schools with a combination of low graduation rates, high student loan default rates, and high out-of-pocket costs relative to instructional quality. These schools are also known for misleading and deceiving service members, veterans, and working families. Veterans Education Success has additional information and tips on choosing a school.
5. Get good intel. Don’t believe the numbers that enrollment people give you. Find graduation and default rates at the Education Department’s College Navigator and College Scorecard websites. But go beyond that and keep on digging.
6. Be warned that accreditation is a very low bar for judging quality. The Higher Learning Commission, for example, accredits some of the best schools, such as the University of Chicago, University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin. But it also accredits some of the most notorious ones.
7. Scout out schools if you have the means, or at least call them. When you do visit, talk to the veterans service officer there and ask for information about the campus veterans center and other services that you may need. Some colleges, for example, offer day care. College is more than just an educational experience, it’s a social experience, and an opportunity to make connections that can last a lifetime.
8. Network, Network, Network…and Network. Veteran Mentor Network on LinkedIn, Warrior Scholar, and Service2 School may help—check them out before choosing a school. Veterans Upward Bound, a federal program for low-income vets, also offers help at a select number of schools. Again, do not rely exclusively on the internet. Wherever you go, there are people in your local community to network with and build important relationships—before, during, and after college. This includes college alumni networks, VA facilities, state and county veterans services, local armories, and veteran friendly government officials. If everything goes well, and it can, you can give back and be a community leader yourself.
Dahn Shaulis is an Army veteran, former educator, and an independent researcher focusing on higher education. His blog, College Meltdown, includes information about the higher education business and a select number of links about college choice and career planning.