The Officer September/October 2011 : Page 40
Minding the Mind Through Technology, higher educaTion grows as a pasTime for Troops—aT home and abroad. by andrew gonyea Troops used to have few options when it came to spending their downtime while deployed: Hit the weight room, read a novel, or write to friends. An increasing number of servicemembers, however, are using their free time to work toward college degrees. The choices are endless, with different types of schools offering a variety of degree programs. Many servicemembers find that they can get not only more education, but also enjoy a respite from high-stress duty while developing their minds at the same time. Of the many colleges and universities that cater to military students, approximately 1,900 comprise the Servicemembers 40 the Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium, a group of military-friendly institutions with flexible policies that allow servicemembers and their families to complete degrees rather than just accumulate course credit (see box on page 42) . All SOC Consortium member institutions must allow for reasonable transfer of credit, credit for military training and experience using the American Council for Education’s Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Forces, and credit for nationally recognized testing programs such as the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST) Examinations, and Excelsior O fficer / S eptember –O ctOber 2011
Minding The Mind
Through Technology, higher educaTion grows as a pasTime for Troops—aT home and abroad.
Troops used to have few options when it came to spending their downtime while deployed: Hit the weight room, read a novel, or write to friends. An increasing number of servicemembers, however, are using their free time to work toward college degrees. The choices are endless, with different types of schools offering a variety of degree programs. Many servicemembers find that they can get not only more education, but also enjoy a respite from high-stress duty while developing their minds at the same time.
Of the many colleges and universities that cater to military students, approximately 1,900 comprise the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium, a group of military-friendly institutions with flexible policies that allow servicemembers and their families to complete degrees rather than just accumulate course credit (see box on page 42). All SOC Consortium member institutions must allow for reasonable transfer of credit, credit for military training and experience using the American Council for Education’s Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Forces, and credit for nationally recognized testing programs such as the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST) Examinations, and Excelsior college Examinations.
One SOC Consortium member institution is Norwich University, based in Northfield, Vt. Founded in 1819, it was the first private military college in the United States and is one of six senior military colleges serving the armed forces. The birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, it remains one of the largest ROTC commissioning schools in the country.
In addition to the programs available at its Vermont location, Norwich offers many online programs. And of its online students, 35 to 40 percent are servicemembers, with 15 to 20 percent of enrollees in the Guard and Reserve.
Bill Clements, vice president and dean of the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies, said Norwich’s online programs, like those of other schools, offer deployed servicemembers the chance to do something to better themselves in their free time. “What we hear a lot is, ‘I’m going to be deployed, and I’m going to be in an area where I will have [Internet] access after my duty day… and rather than just hang around or lift weights or do whatever, I want to accomplish some personal development.’ ”
He noted that deployed servicemembers working toward degrees benefit from a sense of engagement and accomplishment while enjoying a separation from mission and daily responsibilities.
“I think probably the biggest asset toward Soldiers—and certainly it isn’t entirely unique to Norwich—[is that] the online program allows Soldiers to continue their studies,” he said.
It provides a different kind of down time. “It keeps them engaged, and engaged in a different way, which is very good,” Mr. Clements said. “It’s almost—I don’t want to say therapeutic— but it can provide a sense of accomplishment and that they’re using that time to work toward something.”
And while the Internet allows students to virtually come to the school, Norwich also works to take the school to the distance students through a variety of streaming programs and events that allow students all over the world the chance to see what is going on at the campus.
Mr. Clements noted that the biggest concentration of military students is in Norwich’s master of arts and the diplomacy and international conflict program, as well as the military history program. He said that an increasing percentage of students in higher education are adults. “Technology has facilitated access to higher education. … Three in four students today in higher education are age 25 or older. They’re not traditional-age students living in a residential campus setting,” he said. “The enrollment growth of the last decade has come substantially from access to adult students—including, and especially, the military.”
COL Garland Williams USA (Ret.), associate regional vice president for the military division at the University of Phoenix, sees the value in catering to adult learners. He notes that the university provides adult military learners the flexibility, guidance, and curriculum they need.
“If [deployed Soldiers] have an Internet connection, and they’ve got the time, they can keep up with classes and continue their education from Kabul or Baghdad or wherever they might be,” COL Williams said.
“Once we figure out what program they want to be in, then we … figure out what their specific academic program should be, based on the individual credits they bring in. [We can tell them] ‘This is the first course you take, and this is the 20th course you take.’” While in undergraduate and graduate schools, COL Williams said, “I always had to kind of scratch and claw to figure out what the next semester would bring, and here you have a plan you need to follow.”
Because many students are nontraditional and have not had much experience going to college, the university now provides an orientation workshop that is free to students and gives them a chance to simulate a University of Phoenix classroom environment so “they really know what they’re getting into.”
Unlike many liberal arts colleges, which focus on theory and the humanities, the University of Phoenix offers military learners “courses where you go to school tonight and you could possibly use whatever you learned in class in your job tomorrow.” Examples of such fields of study include business, information technology, education, and criminal justice.
COL Williams, too, sees broader benefits for deployed servicemembers working toward a degree. “If you don’t turn your brain off [from mission responsibilities], after six months you’re going to be kind of mush. You can’t stay on high alert for six months and not feel it. School … provides that opportunity [to refocus].”
And COL Williams wholeheartedly believes servicemembers, no matter what their occupation or background, can benefit from the skills obtained with a higher education.
At the University of Phoenix, “We concentrate on critical thinking,” he said. “If you can figure out a way to take a problem and effectively break down that complex problem into a simpler task, you can easily piece those simple tasks back together for a resolution. We do that in the deliberate planning process all the time in the military, and all of our courses … are very compatible with military decision-making. That’s a skill that we can take not only in the military but through our lifelong careers.”
Virginia College is another SOC school, with 20 campuses in nine states. The college offers degrees in fields from business administration, accounting, and management information systems, to culinary arts, golf course management, and interior design.
Virginia College provides its enrolled servicemembers with a military student adviser; the school has 12 of them, 11 of whom are veterans. “The Guard members or reservists have to do their homework before going to school—we do that all for them,” said Dohel Ortiz, Virginia College’s manager for military advisers, about helping prepare students. “We let them know what benefits they’re eligible for, and we tell them where they need to be: If they need to go to their education office or access their tuition assistance form or learn how to apply for GI Bill benefits, we’ll go step by step and walk them through the process.” It’s all a matter of taking additional steps to ensure that a student is armed with the information necessary to complete a degree—particularly for those who have unpredictable schedules due to military demands.
To accommodate Guard members and reservists facing deployment, Virginia College uses a 75 percent system, meaning “if [Guard members or reservists] complete 75 percent of their schooling into a term, they’re afforded a grade and course credit. If it’s before that 75 percent, they receive an incomplete and a full refund,” Mr. Ortiz said.
He noted the opportunity for deployed Virginia College military students to enroll in online courses, but while online learning has exploded, it’s still quite a bit different. “Sometimes there’s a little bit of fear, whether you’re military or not, because it’s nontraditional,” Mr. Ortiz said. Essentially, “you pretty much get the same experience you would in a lecture class.”
Virginia College classes, he added, are very interactive, providing chat opportunities with teachers and the ability to ask questions through a virtual blackboard. Students also receive teachers’ phone numbers to keep communication flowing, something Mr. Ortiz said is crucial for online learning. No final tests are required at a campus or commercial testing facility, and class books are delivered to the servicemember’s home or duty station.
While hundreds of colleges and universities offer a variety of choices for military personnel, those pursuing an education should closely scrutinize their choices to avoid pitfalls while searching for that perfect school.
Ted Daywalt, CEO and president of VetJobs, was recently featured in a PBS Frontline story about how for-profit colleges can be a bad investment for military students. He advises military students to pay attention to such factors as the school’s specialties, program rankings, profiles in national publications, accreditation, and costs.
“Online and for-profit schools have a place in the educational arena and meet the needs of many students,” he said via e-mail. “While there are good for-profit schools ... there are many problems with for-profit schools.”
In particular, he said, students should make sure a school is accredited by a traditional accrediting agency, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and not an agency created by the school itself. Students should also consider whether the degree program is recognized by employers where they are applying for jobs, and whether the degree program is recognized by graduate schools.
Mr. Daywalt also advises students to look at the cost of tuition. “Beware of programs that charge unusually high fees compared to other schools, [because] some for-profit and online schools … charge far more than what the degree is worth,” Mr. Daywalt said. “Private schools, like Harvard, Yale, and Emory charge more, but their degrees and education are perceived to be worth the higher costs.”
Mr. Daywalt advises military students to use credible national publications such as U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, and Forbes, which publish comprehensive rankings and profiles of colleges and universities on an annual basis.
Colleges and universities actively recruit servicemembers— including deployed servicemembers—for enrollment, and provide unique educational opportunities. If the individual servicemember can find a school that offers the right fit and, most important, a marketable degree at appropriate cost, he or she stands to gain much.
But ultimately, it’s the servicemembers’ homework, long before school begins, to ensure not only that the degree program, costs, and benefits are acceptable, but that they truly represent a solid educational foundation and a path for future employment success. In addition, the services, no doubt, can benefit greatly from more driven, sharp, educated, and skilled personnel who continue to represent the U.S. military.
Institutions in the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium are helping servicemembers, who have access to the Internet while deployed, get their degrees. According to SOC Consortium president and SOC director Kathy Snead, “Servicemembers, regardless of what kind of assignment and where they’re deployed, can continue to make progress on their educational plan.”
Using the American Council on Education guidelines for awarding of credit for military training and experience, she continued, “allows servicemembers to take all their experience and get to a degree a little bit quicker.” And through the CLEP and DSST examinations, deployed servicemembers “can study on their own, with guides that are available, take a test at an education center, and if they complete the test and score sufficiently high, they can get the college credit without spending the time or tuition assistance money,” she said.
Another way SOC Consortium schools coordinate with the military is through the SOC Degree Network System, a subgroup of SOC Consortium member institutions selected by the services to deliver specific associate and bachelor’s degree programs. Colleges and universities in the network identify degrees they already offer that match the occupational specialty or the rating of the servicemember, making it easier for servicemembers to use their training and experience to obtain a degree.
SOC Consortium schools often offer unique academic opportunities to deployed servicemembers by providing special advisers, general flexibility and accommodation, online course delivery, and assistance with applying for the Montgomery GI Bill or Post–9/11 GI Bill benefits.
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