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Higher Education Issue: How Do I Go Back to School?

by Heidi Lynn Russell, Contributing Editor

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He was bartending, when a customer ordering a drink suggested he should consider going back to school.


Colin OShea, a former Chinook pilot, CW2 and an Iraq-Afghanistan veteran, had been out of the Army since early 2014. He’d already coasted through sales and insurance jobs. The bartending gig was a stop-gap Ð a place to catch his breath while pondering careers.


But school? He wanted to go but wasn’t even sure where to begin, much less what he wanted to study. He had taken some classes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University during his service but was at a loss on next steps.


That’s when the guy at the bar suggested his alma mater - Morningside - a liberal arts college in Sioux City, Iowa. Surprisingly, not only was the private school financially feasible, but OShea could also transfer his 74 credits from Embry-Riddle. He is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in business administration Ð just shy of 18 months from his start date.


With the right support at the right school, you also could find yourself in OShea’s shoes. Here’s how to get going on your degree, with tips from military student advisors at California State University, Fresno; Texas A&M University-San Antonio; and Texas Woman’s University.

Why should I go back to school?

You’ve already earned the benefit through your service, says Richard Delgado, Director of Military Affairs & Army ROTC at Texas A&M-San Antonio. And like it or not, civilian employers want to see a degree. “You need a degree to show you’re capable and have the book smarts. You may have the savvy. That’s great. But they want the paper to see you’re certified and have the background to do what you’re doing,” Delgado says.


“And to stay on the high end of the pay range, you need the degree,” he adds.

Where do I start?

Divide your starting point into three steps: searching, applying and deciding, says Amy O’Keefe, who works with student veterans at Texas Woman’s University.

  • Search criteria includes location (your state may offer financial incentives to find a school there), school size (Do you prefer a large university setting or smaller class sizes?), how the school communicates (Do they answer your emails or questions promptly?) and most important, whether the school is military-friendly.
  • “Don’t get overly worried about cost. That comes later,” O’Keefe says. “For example, we have a state benefit called the ‘Hazelwood,’ which is a tuition benefit that veterans can stack with their VA benefits.”

That was the case for OShea, who qualified for a $5,300 state grant in Iowa, which he combined with his G.I. Bill. Even though Morningside is a private school, he got through with no out-of-pocket expenses and a Basic Housing Allowance with the G.I. Bill. OShea has worked two jobs 20 hours per week while attending school full-time: his bartending job and an internship-turned-part-time job at a Security National Bank. He works as a securities analyst, and the bank has promised him a full-time position after he graduates. He and his wife are also parents to a newborn.

What do I do?

  • Apply to four schools, Delgado says. Include one that’s a long-shot (a “shoot for the stars” school), one that is your top pick and two others as backups. “Normally, you will get two or three acceptance letters, and then you can choose,” Delgado says. Common application deadlines are December through March or April, but check the school’s admissions guidelines on their website.
  • Decide by comparing schools that accept you based on your search criteria: Who is the most military-friendly, and who offers the programs you need for your desired course of study?

Iliana Smiley was an Army Specialist in the Reserves, working paralegal duties in the JAG Corps. She is the first person in her family to obtain a degree. She graduated this May with a B.S. in government after attending Texas Woman’s University full-time. Her choice of school came down to the type of student attending TWU. You may want to evaluate schools similarly, she advises.


“When I started college, I was 25 or 26 and did not want to be around a lot of young people right out of high school. It made me feel old,” she says, explaining why she eliminated other universities. “Texas Woman’s is 90 percent female and has a lot of people with families and careers. The atmosphere is a little more serious.”

What should I study?

But what if you don’t know your desired major, and it’s holding you back on a school choice? What if you’ve served in the Infantry, for example, and don’t see how your military skills connect to an occupation?


Robyn Gutierrez is Veterans Service Officer and Dr. Daniel Bernard is Executive Director of the Veterans Education Program at California State University, Fresno. They suggest you focus on your interests, because only then will you feel motivated to learn.


“I encourage my own students to be careful of chasing trends. When it comes to what you’re interested in doing professionally, there will always be a fluctuating need in the workforce,” Bernard says.


If you’re still stuck, utilize a school’s career counseling center. “Don’t go to a university that doesn’t have one of those,” says O’Keefe from TWU. “It’s an imperative. They have all kinds of assessments and tools to help students understand not only what they’re good at, but also how their aptitude matches career opportunities.”


Heidi Lynn Russell writes about employment and business issues.

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