When Jesica Rasmussen began looking into her university options three years ago, she had more on her mind than a typical college freshman. As the wife of an active-duty soldier in the U.S. Army, Rasmussen could expect many moves in her future. She could expect deployments when her husband was away for long periods of time, leaving her alone to care for their four children. She also had to find the funds to pay for school with limited budgets and financial programs available to military spouses.
But like many college students, Rasmussen had a dream for her future. In addition to being a military spouse and a mother, she wants to earn a degree to be a teacher and help military kids get a great education.
There are approximately 13 million spouses of active-duty service members and veterans in America today, and many of them are pursuing a college degree or continuing education in order to contribute to the health welfare of their families. Colleges and universities should be working to improve access to education for military families. With hurdles such as frequent relocation and increased responsibility at home when a spouse is deployed, it is incredibly hard for spouses of active military members to go to college full time and earn a degree. There are multiple ways that schools can help military spouses earn their degrees and bring this large and growing population to their school.
Approved Educational Programs
Military families face a great many challenges and sacrifice much in their service to our nation. One key educational benefit available to them is the GI Bill. GI Bill benefits vary depending on a number of factors, including the educational program being pursued, the year of enlistment, and number of years served. Service Members and their families have to learn the ins and outs of the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills and find the right way to capitalize on this important source of funds for military families, e.g., GI benefits can often be transferred to family members. Colleges can help alleviate this challenge by offering degree programs that are approved for Veterans Administration education benefits under the GI Bill.
Finding Available Funds
In addition to the GI Bill, service members have to navigate through the complex, and often confusing world of financial aid, scholarships, grants, and other possible funds for their education. College financial aid offices need to understand these programs in order to help service members and their families apply for certain types of federal tuition assistance for military personnel and veterans’ housing stipends. There are also scholarship and grant programs dedicated to military families. Rasmussen found out about a grant available to spouses of active-duty service members, and in 2012, she was awarded a $5,000 grant by the Our Family for Families First Foundation, an organization dedicated to the education of military family members.
Flexible Degree Programs
Most schools offer online classes, but for the military student, flexible degree programs from accredited universities are critical. Students from military families often move every two to three years and experience multiple deployments and assignments that, at best, interrupt routines, and also create an environment of stress and worry at home. Colleges that allow students to choose to attend classes in-person or online, on a semester basis or at their own pace, during the day or in the middle of the night, will meet the needs of the military family member.
Today’s students take an average of 4.5 years to earn an undergraduate degree, and for military spouses, it can take twice that long. Colleges should offer competency-based programs, which measure what has been learned, not how long has been spent in a classroom. Competency-based education means that for each course, a council of industry and academic leaders defines what is needed to demonstrate successful learning in the subject matter. Rasmussen evaluated a number of schools in different locations, trying to find a college that would take into account her multiple years of classwork, and eventually found the college that was right for her. She is now pursuing a Bachelor of Arts, Interdisciplinary Studies (K-8) from Western Governors University (WGU). This online school assessed her competency and allowed her to start taking classes based on her level, as determined through testing and evaluation. Because of this competency-based approach, it will take approximately 18 months to complete her undergraduate degree rather than four years.
Transferrable Credits and National Accreditation
Degree programs should allow credits and education to be transferred with the student, regardless of the location or frequency of moves. Kerry C, whose husband is in the military, has moved with her husband several times over the past five years, and with every move, she was unable to transfer all of her credits from one school to the next. This puts military spouses at a financial and academic disadvantage to traditional students, forcing them to take the same classes over and over. Students are choosing online universities instead of the colleges in their local communities because of the inability to transfer classes.
In selecting courses of study, colleges can also help spouses choose accreditation that can apply nationally or offer accreditation that meets requirements across state lines. Military spouses from across the country work hard to become nurses and teachers, only to see their certificates, registrations, and licenses not be recognized when they move to new states.
Feedback from Employers
All students want to be successful in a field that they love, but it is not necessarily a straight line from the dream to the dream job. Military spouses have limited time and financial resources to dedicate to their education. Colleges and universities can help by providing real-world advice in the selection of a career path. Feedback from employers who have hired their graduates is of benefit to potential students by painting a picture of what employers value with regard to degrees and universities.
The stress and strain on the military spouse is often more pronounced than in the typical student, and resources for tutoring or simple encouragement are not always easy to find. Colleges can reach out specifically to military family members and provide advisors and mentors for students taking online courses, or an online student community where they can share and receive advice, words of encouragement and participate in study groups.
Military families will point to childcare as a critical need to help spouses successfully complete their education. Although all students with children struggle with this challenge, often military spouses are akin to single parents, with a deployed or assigned spouse unavailable to help even at night or on weekends and allow for time to go to class or complete assignments. Schools may not have the ability to provide childcare, but providing informational resources for affordable childcare available to students would go a long way in improving a student’s success rate.
Anne, a military spouse and college student, worked with her college in Missouri to develop a program to support veterans as they attempt to adjust to the college environment and earn a degree. She helped the school to understand how different the academic environment is from a military one, and also the special challenges that military families experience. Colleges and universities who are able to retain a military specialist on-staff, and preferably hire former military or military spouses, will be able to offer programs and services that benefit from this perspective. Small gestures, such as creating private study areas away from the crowds and noise of the typical library or student union, to allowing students to make up classes at nontraditional times, will reap great rewards.
Making the Grade
Rasmussen, the military spouse from Fort Bragg, plans to pursue a Master’s degree in Instructional Design after she completes her undergraduate degree. She wants to work for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) to help military children find the best educational resources available. Improving access to education for military families and helping thousands of spouses like Rasmussen begins with schools showcasing degree programs eligible under the GI Bill and fine-tuning their financial aid programs to veterans to make earning a degree financially feasible. Offering a hybrid online and offline curriculum and providing transferrable credits goes a long way towards easing the stress of frequent moves and allows military spouses to earn college degrees in a timelier manner.
Colleges and universities across the United States have made great strides in reaching out to military families pursuing their educational dreams. But, as we face a growing population of veterans and military families looking to stabilize their families in the years ahead, it will take a more focused, comprehensive effort from higher education to give military spouses the ability attend and graduate from college—support that will truly make the difference in how these families move forward.