Service Members, Spouses and Veterans Often Need a New Kind of College Education | Commentary

Posted December 15, 2014 at 3:20pm

When the newly elected Congress convenes, it will consider two seemingly unrelated issues: funding a new military involvement in the Middle East and reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which governs student aid.

Both issues raise a crucial question: How will the nation repay its debt to the servicemen and women who have sacrificed so much, as well as to the family members who have held their households together during the demanding years since 9/11?

With many careers requiring two-year, four-year or postgraduate degrees, higher education can broaden the suite of career opportunities available to service members, their spouses and returning veterans.

But which institutions can serve their needs? Every sector of higher education, including public colleges and universities, traditional non-profit private institutions, community colleges, and proprietary institutions, has a contribution to make. Proprietary colleges and universities, which are currently educating some 3 million students, offer access and flexibility that is essential to many working adults but too often unavailable at traditional institutions.

Of all these sectors, the proprietary colleges and universities are receiving the closest scrutiny from federal regulators. But they are making a growing contribution to educating service members, their spouses and returning veterans, all of whom often need an innovative approach to adult education.

For both of us, this issue is intensely personal. One of us grew up in a military family and later served as chief of continuing education in the U.S. Department of Defense. The other served in the U.S. Air Force for more than two decades before pursuing an academic career. Now, we address these issues from our vantage point as current and incoming chairs of the board of trustees of the University of the Rockies, an innovative proprietary graduate school, and as close observers of our affiliate institution, Ashford University, which offers associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

These and similar institutions offer service members, their spouses and returning veterans discounted tuition and textbooks, as well as online courses and curriculum materials, flexible schedules and recognition of prior course work that accommodate the need of many of these students to begin and conclude their college educations at different institutions.

These innovative policies remove the time and space barriers between these dedicated students and the advanced education that they need, deserve and can put to good use.

While generations of students have been well-served by the traditional model of full-time, on-campus education for 18-to-21-year-olds, it is ill-suited to most working adults with family responsibilities, including many returning veterans. And no one needs an innovative, flexible approach to higher education more than active duty service members and their spouses.

Because of duty requirements and long hours, they also need to find the time to study, complete course work, and participate in classes. Because active duty service members and their spouses must be so mobile, military students do not attend only one institution but rather two or three or more before earning their degrees.

Institutions such as University of the Rockies and Ashford offer flexible online class schedules, with courses starting and ending every five to six weeks.

Moreover, these institutions conduct prior learning assessments for military students and veterans, awarding up to 90 transfer credits for prior learning, including military training and experience. Understanding the demands of military service, these institutions allow service members who can no longer attend to re-enroll without penalty, continuing their studies where they had left off.

Because military students need to be able to pull up course materials wherever they are, these institutions have been among the first to create digitized content that can be uploaded on phones and other mobile devices, thereby offering access to course content anywhere and at any time.

Such flexibility and accessibility explains why some 75 percent of military enrollments in higher education across-the-boards are in online programs, often at proprietary institutions. Because military members depend on others for their very lives, they are drawn to schools based on the recommendations of family members and friends who have had good experiences at these institutions. They “vote with their boots,” and federal legislators and regulators shouldn’t second-guess them.

Offering opportunities for higher education for service members, their spouses and returning veterans is a national obligation. Let’s look at colleges’ and universities’ records of innovation and accomplishment, not their tax status.

Carolyn Baker, the former chief of continuing education for the U.S. Department of Defense, is the current chairwoman of the board of trustees at University of the Rockies, a leading graduate school in the behavioral sciences. Donald M. Bird, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force with a doctorate in organic chemistry, is the outgoing chairman.