Higher Ed

OPINION: On active-military duty and earning a college degree

Facilitating higher education for current members of the U.S. armed forces — and veterans, too

First-year cadets following the Air Force Academy assault course.

Military students help both themselves and the economy when they earn advanced degrees, and we must find the best techniques to engage this important group.

Education has come a long way since the inception of the G.I. Bill in the 1940s. With the onset of online learning, those on active duty have been able to advance their educations, whether stationed in the United States or overseas.

For those who’ve left military service and are working full time, online learning offers the chance to complete a degree or change majors and acquire an additional degree more suited to areas of interest or job opportunities.

Related: Older cadets at Air Force Academy are a sign of the times in higher education

The opportunity is great but so are the challenges. As with most adult learners, military students need flexibility given competing demands on their time. There are added complications for the active-duty student, for example, who may go on TDY (“temporary duty yonder”) for a week without the possibility to study.

At online universities, such Grantham where I serve as provost and chief academic officer, faculty are sensitive to these military requirements and work to remove barriers that might impede a military student’s success.

Related: At some colleges that recruit veterans and their GI Bill money, none graduate

Programs for online degrees should offer minimal login-time requirements — as long as the student substantively interacts in the classroom each week. Service members are fitting education into their long days, and removing specific class time requirements is another way of making education more attainable.

Beyond the need for flexibility, military students often learn in different ways. Grantham has developed an educational framework that provides military students with different avenues to learning.

Consider the example of the “left, left, right, left” U.S. Marine Corps cadence, which helps keep soldiers synchronized and motivated as fatigue sets in. We use something similar in our online classrooms. By changing the rhythm of each academic week to resemble a cadence, we help the military learner draw on the same skill-set to persevere through emotional and cognitive fatigue.

Related: Despite family and work commitments, student veterans outpace classmates

Also important for the military learner is making connections with readily identifiable experiences.

This aids the military learner’s understanding of a variety of concepts.

Harvard Business Review case studies, for example, help those studying for MBAs. Our faculty incorporate case studies that make strong connections to the business world and the military student’s world.

Related: Veterans continue to battle for their military training to count as college credit

Military learners have functioned in highly evolved organizational structures and have observed, or been responsible for, decision-making in high-pressure situations.

Lessons in leadership, management, supervision and delegation have been part of their training.

When faculty connect the military experience with concepts in courses such as organizational behavior, military learners thrive as theory connects with real-world applications.

Related: For returning veterans, back-to-school brings new battles – and not enough help

Training faculty about military culture and offering them programs that focus on effectiveness in teaching military learners can help such students succeed.

At institutions such as ours, faculty cannot begin teaching military students until they have passed this core training. Additionally, faculty are trained on how to correlate “completing the mission” with completing coursework.

Accountability is key, and military students are guided to take their academic programs seriously, working toward successful completion of classes in the same way they honor the military mission and corresponding core values.

Related: The new G.I. Bill: Big money, big challenges

Also of importance to military learners, as to all students, is the cost of education. Scholarship opportunities and low tuition rates like Grantham’s are critical when military education benefits have been depleted. To help them persist in their programs and bridge the financial gap when tuition assistance benefits are exhausted for the year, Grantham even steps in with a special “resilience” scholarship for eligible military service members.

Millions of military learners have received taxpayer-supported educational benefits across a wide spectrum of fields – engineering, medicine, accounting, teaching, business, science and more over the past seven decades.

Just as the original G.I. Bill helped to spur post-World War II economic growth, today’s support of education for military students will benefit our nation’s economy and those who have served our country.

Adapting learning techniques to best engage them and removing learning obstacles are critical for higher-education institutions focused on military learners.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Niccole Kopit serves as provost and chief academic officer of Grantham University, an online university rooted in serving members of the U.S. military.


Niccole Kopit

Niccole Kopit serves as provost and chief academic officer for Grantham University, a 100 percent online university deeply rooted in serving the military. See Archive

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