College After Military: Advice from Fellow Service Members Who Made the Transition

group of students laughing together

You’ve faced some pretty daunting challenges while serving in the military. No matter how daunting an obstacle seemed, you always found the inner strength to overcome and continue pushing forward.

Now that your military career has ended, you’re facing a new type of challenge: attending college. Making the transition to college life comes with ups and downs for everyone, but veterans often have unique circumstances that they need to consider as they prepare for college after military life.

But you’re not alone in this process! Plenty of service members have gone before you in attending college after the military. We’ve rounded up advice from service members who’ve attended college so you can feel prepared for your next big step of earning a degree.

Advice from service members on attending college after military service

There’s no better people to gain wisdom from than those who have walked the same path before you. Heed their advice so you can achieve the same success they have.

1. Don’t worry about feeling ‘behind’ your peers

Many former service members may feel like they’re “behind” other students, since many of their classmates are fresh out of high school. “My biggest challenge was that I was 27 years old and felt like I was behind others by starting at this age,” says veteran and author Carol Gee. “I had this feeling that I needed to catch up.”

However, this feeling is often unfounded. Gee, who attended college on a military base while her husband served in the Air Force, discovered that many of her classmates were older than the typical college student. “After enrolling, I realized I wasn’t the only older student just beginning. In fact, there were many who were even older,” Gee says.

It’s not just on-base colleges that have older students. USA Today reports that 74 percent of American undergrad students are “nontraditional,” including those who are age 25 or older and/or have children.1 You can rest assured that no matter how old you are, it’s never too late to pursue an education.

2. Choose the environment you need

Not all college environments are the same. Every college campus has a different atmosphere, and many degree programs can be completed online. Anthony Treas, a veteran of the Iraq war who went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and start STRONG Men Coaching, recommends finding a college environment that suits your needs.

“For the first two years after my deployment, I took only online classes. During this time, I was struggling with PTSD severely and I did not feel comfortable being around a lot of people,” Treas says. After two years, he found a university campus that offered the right environment, programs and resources he needed to succeed.

“For veterans who may also be struggling with PTSD, I would encourage them to visit the campus they are thinking of attending,” Treas says. Visiting potential colleges in person will help you choose one that offers the right atmosphere for you.

3. Consider a shorter degree program

Most people envision a four-year commitment when they talk about college, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Many degree programs are designed to help you enter the workforce in less time, which can be helpful for service members who are eager to get started on their new career.

Because Gee was still working around the schedule of her enlisted husband, she decided to choose a two-year degree program. “That way [if we had to relocate] I didn’t have to worry that some of my credits wouldn’t transfer and I would have to retake them, wasting time and money.”

If you’re unsure about where your future will take you, a shorter degree program could be the right solution.

4. Connect with other veterans

Being a veteran in a college setting can feel isolating. While other students are focused solely on their studies, veterans may also be struggling with PTSD and adjusting to civilian life in a way that most students can’t relate to.

“What helped me was finding other veterans on campus,” Treas says. “At the college I attended, there is a veterans’ lounge and a very active veterans’ group that would meet on a regular basis. Having other veterans to talk to and become friends with helped in dealing with this transition.”

5. Share your experiences

It can feel intimidating to sit in a classroom where no one else shares your experiences. “The most difficult transition for me was attending classes with students who were mostly unaware of some of life’s difficulties and what was going on in the world,” Treas says. “It was difficult to relate to the students.”

He was able to turn this uncomfortable situation into a positive one by using his time in the classroom as an opportunity to talk about his experiences with other students. “I took the attitude that we can learn from each other, and I found most students were open to hearing what I had to say when given the opportunity.”

6. Use any available resources for former service members

There are an abundance of resources available to help service members navigate the transition from military life to college. Both of the veterans we spoke to encourage every vet to take advantage of these options.

“For veterans anticipating attending college post-military, I recommend that they work closely with a veterans’ counselor at their select colleges,” Gee says. Working with her counselor led her to realize that some of her military training could count toward elective credits, which allowed her to save time and money.

There are also plenty of options available to make the cost of college tuition more affordable for veterans. “I would encourage all veterans to take advantage of their educational benefits, especially Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E), for those who qualify,” Treas says. Veterans’ counselors and other staff can help you apply for and maintain requirements for benefits like VR&E and the GI Bill, so don’t shy away from claiming them if you want to earn a degree.

7. Don’t wait to pursue your education

“I would encourage veterans to go to college early on,” Treas says. “I know the struggles of returning from war and dealing with PTSD and many of life’s difficulties,” but he adds that overcoming these obstacles to pursue your education is often better than waiting.

“My degrees and being a war veteran have opened many doors for me. I now get to do something I love, rather than something I must do or am not happy doing. I help men achieve better health, happiness and personal fulfillment,” Treas says. He acknowledges that this wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t prioritized his education, even when it was difficult.

Find success in college after military

Preparing for college after military service can feel intimidating, but this advice from veterans who have stood in your shoes can help you make the transition.

Rasmussen College offers plenty of resources for service members to take advantage of as they pursue their degree. You’ve served your country—now let us serve you. Learn more about Rasmussen College’s military benefits and how they can support you throughout your college experience.

1USA Today, Older students are the new normal at college. The reason? The recession and new technology, [accessed January, 2020] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/10/03/adult-older-nontraditional-college-students-louisiana/1504180002/

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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