Look before you leap - things to consider before enrolling in higher education

  • Published
  • By Capt. Erin Palumbo
  • 439th Force Support Squadron
Many Airmen join the military specifically for the education benefits. The GI Bills and Tuition Assistance have provided a tremendous opportunity to gain the education needed to compete in the 21st century. However, the path to higher education can be confusing. It is more important than ever that we provide our prospective service member students with the information they need to make a good choice in a secondary school.

Here are some important points to consider:

Yes, you want an advanced degree.

You've heard it from your parents and from your peers, "get a degree," "finish your education." And in the military you hear it all the time, to the point where it starts to feel like just another box to check. Why, then, is it so important to invest time in this?

It's no myth that people with advanced degrees, on average, make more money than people with a high school diploma. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average weekly earnings for 2012 as follows, high school graduate, $626; associate degree $761; bachelor's degree, $1,025; master's degree, $1,257; doctoral degree, $1,532.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Your degree will also help drive your military career and, equally important, it will drive your career outside the military. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 52 percent of veterans were employed in 2012. Therefore, it's likely you will also have a civilian job following your military career. Even those that reach retirement will probably seek additional civilian employment following their time in service.

The most committed service members are very likely to transition to a civilian job at some point in their careers. A degree is much more than checking a box in your military career progression. It provides the stability, competitiveness, and lifetime financial rewards to cover the range of employment challenges a majority of Airmen will face over their entire working lives. However, consider these premises before putting the first down payment on a college education.

Look before you leap

Sometimes in the rush to obtain a degree, not enough consideration is given to which degree is the right one. This seemingly minor point frequently is not granted the reflection it deserves. The money provided to our Airmen is good for one higher education degree. If an Airman rushes to get a degree in anything, looking to check the box, and later finds out that career field has no interest, no jobs in the area, or is not compatible with their family/military life, there is no going back. No more money.

A college education is a huge financial and time commitment and deserves serious reflection. Consider a similar purchase, such as buying a house. Before you sign the dotted line, you would spend time considering the location, your long-term plans, you would order a house inspection, and you would take time walking through the property to ensure it was the right purchase.

Give the same consideration to your degree selection. Whatever you pick will have a lasting impact. There are several ways to do a pre-purchase exam, which leads to the next point.

Try it on for size

Before you purchase your degree in higher education, try it on for size. There are several good ways to get a feel for a career before investing time and money.

Airmen could consider an internship. While the pay might be minimal, the experience gained is invaluable. This is an effective way to test a career field. Sometimes job realities might be a lot different than job expectations.

While no pay is offered, volunteering a few hours might be extremely flexible and there might be more opportunities to get involved. Working nights, weekends or part-time hours could provide a chance to see if the job matches your preference. Volunteering might also get you closer to the actual position you want.

Obtaining an entry-level job in the field will also give you some exposure. For example, if you think you would like to be a nurse, try a job as a secretary in a hospital. It'll help give you a good feel of the daily life of a nurse and general work atmosphere.

Any of these options might slow an eager Airman in the pursuit of a degree. But if the money and time of an education are weighed against the cost of a second education when the first one doesn't work out, it's a very smart choice.

'Not all schools are created equal'

Do your homework before you enroll. Not all colleges are created equal and I don't mean your community college versus Harvard. At the 2012 DoD Worldwide Education Symposium, two members direct from the Pentagon's Department of Justice spoke on the growing fraud and misrepresentation in the recruiting or educating of service members. Some college recruiters may be selling a lemon. Not only are service members harmed, but the GI and Tuition Assistance money designed to help them are also not well spent. If at some point the government feels these programs are not accomplishing their mission, funding for them may be reconsidered.

Today, there are many colleges offering online degrees and claiming to be military friendly. Upon closer inspection there can be a wide difference in quality. It's worth the time to fully price shop as there can be huge differences. One college might offer the same degree for 25 percent less cost. Some colleges do not have fully credited programs. Be wary of any college claiming to be endorsed by a service. The Department of Defense does not endorse any college or university. Schools should not claim to be approved by or use the seal of any military component. Nobody should be subjected to repeated phone calls, emails, or direct mail. Consider these aggressive marketing tactics as red flags.

Be sure you check the school accreditation as well as credit transfer history. All encompassing statements such as "everyone's credits transfer everywhere" should put you on alert. Nobody's credits transfer everywhere. However the school should have a good history of most credits being accepted at most applicable schools. Ask about the school's graduation rate and job placement record.

At the 2012 DoD Worldwide Education Conference, a story was relayed concerning a Chicago college promising criminal justice graduates a job with the Illinois State Police. It turned out not one graduate had ever gotten a job with the state police and in fact the Illinois State Police did not accept graduates from that particular program. Just a few blocks down the street, a different college was offering a criminal justice major for nearly half the price. The Illinois State Police did hire these graduates.

Do your research, ask the questions. For many service members, a college education will be one of the biggest financial purchases. Getting a degree is important. Equally important is taking the time to research the particular degree and school you choose. TA and GI money are a big help but are not "bottomless buckets."

Much like other major purchases, take the time to do your homework before you enroll. Benjamin Franklin said it best, "If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins."

Capt. Palumbo is the officer in charge of the base education and training office.