There’s no question that having at least some college education is good for you. Whether you think about it as just a part of your life-long learning and knowledge growth, or as a key factor in your career path, a post-secondary education will help you get ahead.
But an education costs money, which is an important factor in anyone’s decision to pursue a degree. However, American service-members and veterans have an advantage in how they plan to pay for their educations because of the array of educational benefits their military service branch or the Department of Veterans Affairs provides for them.
As most people are aware, the GI Bill®¹ is a valuable tool in funding an education, especially the Post 9-11 GI Bill®, which most current active service-members will be eligible for upon their release from active duty. It’s a little bit of security to help veterans attain their educational and occupational goals after they transition to civilian life.
But why put it off? Do you really need to wait until you leave the service to take advantage of fantastic educational benefits? The simple answer is no. You can start working on your education at any time, and you can save a lot of money while doing it.
There are education centers on virtually every US military installation in the world. Many of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen are even taking advantage of online programs to further their civilian educations while they’re forward deployed.
Does it make a difference to get a head start on your civilian education while on active duty? Will your GI Bill® benefits go to waste if you get your degree while on active duty? Will you really benefit from pursuing your education before you get out?
Let’s take a look at these questions and more as we consider the advantages and disadvantages of getting an education while on active duty versus waiting until after your release.
Saving Time by Taking Classes while on Active Duty
The transition from active duty service back to the civilian world is inherently stressful. It may feel like a great relief to finally be able to grow a beard or let your hair down, but such a major life change is a significant stressor, whether you feel it’s a positive change or not. Most likely, you’re probably doing a lot more than just changing jobs. You’re likely going to move to another state, as well.
But these aren’t the only changes. There’s probably going to be a significant change in your financial status. Even if you’re going to be getting retired pay or VA compensation benefits, that amount probably won’t be close to what you were earning in the service. You can use your GI Bill benefits to further your education, but do you really want to wait four years to reach the earning potential a college degree will give you?
You’ll be that much closer to your career goals. You could leave the service and step right into a fulfilling career while others who are getting out of the service at the same time are settling for second rate jobs or still trying to get their degrees.
Will Your GI Bill® Benefits Go to Waste?
The short answer — just like we noted above — is no. If your academic goal is to earn a degree, you’re not wasting anything if you earn one using a different educational benefit at your disposal. Utilizing the tuition assistance program, which is only available to you while you’re on active duty, isn’t a waste of anything. Like we mentioned above, you’re just getting ahead on your path to your goals. Tuition assistance is a great program, and more people should take advantage of.
What’s more important is that even if you’ve earned a Bachelor’s Degree while on active duty, you can still utilize your GI Bill® benefits in a variety of ways.
- Going to Graduate School. And you can use the GI Bill® to fund your pursuit of a graduate degree. Post-graduate programs are usually more expensive than typical undergrad courses of study. If you’ve already earned a degree you will be able to save even more money when you use your VA education benefits to work toward a Master’s Degree or a Doctorate.
- Transferring Your Post 9-11 GI Bill Benefits. If you have dependents — a spouse or children or both — and you meet the minimum service requirements, you may be eligible to transfer your Post 9-11 GI Bill® benefits to them. You could finish your degree while on active duty, and your spouse can work on hers using the GI Bill®. Or you can earn your Bachelor’s Degree utilizing tuition assistance and save money while your children use your Post 9-11 GI Bill® Benefits.
- On-the-Job Training. Even with a degree, you may have a lengthy training period in your new career. If you apply for federal employment, you may start at an entry-level pay grade, but if the position has a higher promotion potential, you may be eligible to use your GI Bill® benefits to supplement your income while you’re in a training status and working toward the promotion potential of the position. This can also be used in a variety of management training programs in the private sector.
- Entrepreneurship Training. If you’re interested in starting a business after your release from active duty, you can utilize your GI Bill® benefits to participate in an approved entrepreneurship training program. You can learn some of the skills you’ll need, as well some of the legal requirements, to start your own business. And again, you’ll be ahead of your peers.
And these aren’t the only things you can do to make the most of your entitlement to the GI Bill® once you’ve earned your degree while on active duty. There are a variety of ways to use it to get ahead once you’re out in the civilian world.
Everyone wants to get the most out of their years of military service, whether you’re serving for a single enlistment of six years and then getting out or you plan to serve 20 years and then retire. What everyone thinks about when we talk about maximizing our service is getting promoted as early as you can.
You want to have a greater earning potential, greater responsibilities, and a better resume when you look for civilian employment. You gain those advantages with promotions.
And your civilian education can play a role in helping you earn those promotions. In the army, it has the greatest potential to help you attain a higher rank. For promotion to E-5 and E-6 —army sergeant or staff sergeant — you can earn up to 100 promotion points (out of a possible 800) just by completing college courses at one point per credit hour. Taking classes while on active duty won’t just save you money on your education, it can put money in your pocket by helping you with your next advancement.
The other services may not account for how you’ve been pursuing your education as directly as the army does, but it will still help. Senior enlisted promotion boards will consider civilian education. It could make the difference between two people being considered for a final selection to E-7.
And it may not just play a role in senior promotions. If a unit’s senior leadership has to make a decision to promote one person to E-4, the pursuit of an education can make the difference. If two E-3s who are comparable in terms of job performance, military bearing, and military training are being considered for a single promotion to E-4, the one who has shown the most initiative to work toward a civilian education goal would probably be the one who gets promoted.
There’s a keyword there, “initiative.” Showing the initiative to seek self-improvement and work on a post-secondary education can make the difference between getting promoted and not. It will show on your performance evaluations because you’re seeking that self-improvement, and those evaluations will be reviewed as part of your record when promotions are considered.
It won’t only make a difference when you’re competing for promotions while still in the military. If you get out of the service and start working in a position not necessarily requiring a degree or even any formal post-secondary education, your degree or even the classes you took while on active duty may be what distinguishes you from your competition when you interview for promotions.
Indeed, having an education already under your belt can set you apart from other applicants when you’re looking for your first job after being released from active duty. Being a veteran always helps, but you can set yourself apart with a post-secondary education.
Your Life and Career
Let’s face it, not all military specialties have a good direct skill transfer to the civilian world. If you joined the army out of high school to become a Stinger Crewman, you may have difficulty translating that job description to civilian skills. You likely will not find a civilian job shooting down aircraft.
The military will instill some important skills and values in you. You’ve likely become more disciplined, and you’re probably more ready to be a leader. And these are just a couple of reasons why so many employers like to hire veterans. You may have joined the navy out of high school because you weren’t sure what you wanted to do next. This happens.
You may decide to reenlist for a new specialty or start from scratch when you get out and go to school. Or, you can start your education while you’re still in uniform, and you can be ready for a new career when you’re out of it. If you only want to complete a single term of service, working toward your degree will help you make the most of that time.
You may have entered the air force for a single enlistment as a Personnel Specialist, and you may like this job. A degree along with the professional experience will help you obtain a more advanced job when you start looking for work in conjunction with your transition to civilian life.
And a formal education has additional benefits, which can make a difference in your life.
- You learn critical thinking skills, which can help you make important life decisions, like whether a mortgage option will work for you or even whether you’re ready to buy a home. You may just get a better understanding of whether or not you’re ready for a career change.
- You may learn a skill, and it becomes a new passion. You signed up for classes to enhance your coding skills, but you find out you have a hidden talent that could be marketable when you complete a degree. You could even start your own lucrative business.
- You may just learn you’ve been on the right track. The combination of your military training and your civilian education could show you you’re on the path to the career you’ve wanted, but you weren’t sure of it.
A formal education will, indeed, change your life.
There Are No Disadvantages to Self-Improvement
Getting your education is a great way to improve yourself. You increase your knowledge. You build new skills. You immediately start to set yourself up for future success.
We set out to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of working toward completing your education while on active duty versus waiting until after your release. And there are a number of advantages for you and possibly for your family, as well.
Indeed, there are no disadvantages to getting a post-secondary education, well, unless you start applying for jobs beneath your skill and experience level. But you’re not that person. You’re a soldier, a sailor, an airman, or a marine. You have the discipline to get the work done. You have the courage to try and challenge yourself. You have the initiative to make your life better.
You’re ready. The only disadvantage you can introduce to this situation is putting your education off until you get out of the service. It will help you get promoted while you’re still in uniform, and it will fill out your civilian resume quite nicely. You’ll be in excellent shape for the challenges and achievements of whichever path you choose, and you’ll be ready for any obstacle. Why wait?
What to Do Next
You have an educational goal, and now you need a plan to achieve it. Vista College can help you form your plan and get you on your way to success. All you have to do is start checking out Vista College's degree programs.
¹GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.