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Institutions Actively Help Military Members and Veterans Earn College Degrees

Matthew Oliveira, who has been in the Coast Guard for 12 years and is currently stationed in South Carolina, knew that he wanted to finish his degree because it would make him more “marketable.”

Veterans who graduated recently from University Without Walls at University of Massachusetts Amherst at commencement.Veterans who graduated recently from University Without Walls at University of Massachusetts Amherst at commencement.

So in the fall of 2016, Oliveira enrolled as a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in a fully online academic program that caters to adult students called University Without Walls (UWW).

Now, Oliveira is in the process of taking his last class at the university and is set to earn his bachelor’s degree with a concentration in federal law and criminal justice, a major that he developed with the assistance of his faculty adviser.

Drawn to UWW because they were “generous when accepting my credits,” he was able to earn 29 transfer credits from UMass Amherst for his military training and an additional 21 credits for  writing and submitting a prior-learning portfolio.

Additionally, he says that the program was an “affordable” option.

“In life today, when you go to apply to places, you need some college education, at least a bachelor’s degree,” says Oliveira. “You can say you have all this experience but sometimes just a minimum requirement is to have a degree.”

While Oliveira has been working toward his degree, he has found that the biggest challenge has been balancing work, family and school.

“Some of the biggest challenges have just been staying on top of things,” says Oliveira, who is the father of a newborn and says that balancing family life has been a bit tricky. “That was a biggest challenge and trying to stay focused.”

While many institutions around the United States have developed programs for active-duty military and veterans to earn their degrees by providing them with flexible education options, University Without Walls at UMass Amherst has become a national model.

Established in 1971, UWW targets adult students in general, but it also has specific opportunities available for veterans or active-duty military, according to Melanie DeSilva, who is the UWW director of marketing, communications and recruitment. Currently, 61 enrolled students have self-identified as veterans, active-duty military or are using family military benefits.

Within the UWW program, military students can earn credits two different ways. For one, certain professional training and certification can be transferred for credit. Additionally, students can create the prior-learning portfolio, which is a series of essays that reflect on their life and experiences and students can earn up to 30 UMass Amherst credits.

“In the online nature of the program and the fact that we were asynchronous means that active-duty military personnel and veterans who are working full-time are often able to fit their education into their schedule,” says DeSilva. “What I mean by asynchronous is in our classes, students still have syllabi and assignments but when they get that work done, they’re on their own schedule.”

The time it takes students to complete the degree varies as it depends on the number of credits an individual starts with. Students can enter the program with a minimum of 12 credit hours but most students begin UWW with an average of about 60 credit hours.

“It is very focused on the individual student and what is going to be best for that student to help them get through the program and earn their degree, meet all of their personal and professional educational goals and help them to save as much money as possible, which is obviously often the case for a lot of folks,” says DeSilva.

UWW also helps interested students transition into graduate school. In addition, active-duty military and veterans are given academic advisers that stay with them throughout the course of the program, providing support along the way.

“Having that advising support, I think, is absolutely crucial so that when any students are having a challenging time or they are trying to balance everything with work, school, community and family, they have somebody who they can consistently go to for support, encouragement, advice and guidance,” says DeSilva.

Some of the challenges that face veterans and active military personnel — such as the financial costs associated with attending college — have been well-documented across the years.

According to a report by the American Council on Education (ACE), 42 percent of veterans work full-time while in college. Moreover, 89 percent of veterans applied for financial aid while they were earning their degree and 85 percent of those who applied actually received aid. Sixty-one percent of veterans take classes online, at night or on weekends while only 23 percent of veterans attend college located more than 100 miles from their home.

At Craven Community College located in North Carolina, college officials recently launched an innovative program called Lunchtime Learning, which provides military students and their families a flexible opportunity to take classes over their lunch break as a way to work toward their degree.

Currently, the program offers a variety of classes including writing and inquiry, writing and research, American history II and general psychology. The course credits can be transferred to a four-year university or be used toward an associate degree. The courses are eight weeks long and occur two days a week from 11:40  a.m. to 12:55 a.m.

The military student already brings a wealth of knowledge and a variety of experience to the institutions due to their mission requirements as a service member,” says Mitchell O. Martin, who is the coordinator of military affairs at Craven Community College (Craven CC), adding that many of the students transfer to four-year institutions after they earn their associate’s degree. “The main goal of this program is to give personnel a great way to budget their time. By attending their classes during lunch time, the students can get class time during the day. This frees up time after the work day for service members to do other things, such as spending time with family, friends or doing homework.”

In the future, Martin says that he hopes to provide students with more course options within the program.

Military students have multiple financial aid opportunities in order to help minimize the costs of the Lunchtime Learning program including tuition assistance, which pays upward of $4,500 in tuition costs. Additionally, military personnel who are eligible can qualify for a Pell Grant or other scholarships, according to Martin.

In terms of the UWW program, the application fee is waived for veterans and active-duty military. UMass Amherst also offers other campus support systems for military members such as a veteran services office that helps answer questions surrounding affordability as well as the university itself.

“We have a consistent history of serving this population with compassion and with an enormous amount of respect and getting veterans through to their bachelor’s and beyond,” says DeSilva. “So we have a long history of this, we are proud of it.”

This article appeared in the September 6, 2018 edition of Diverse, which focused on Veteran Military Education.

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