Where to start college?

Where to start college?

by Chris Goodrich, Veteran's Program Administrator, Portland State University
Courtesy of Military.com

College and university systems can vary greatly from state to state and from public to private schools. Although this may be frustrating at first, the different answers you receive will begin to help you find the best school for you.

Two-Year Community/Junior College

Whether your state calls them Community Colleges or Junior Colleges, these schools offer students a two-year associate degree. Two-year colleges can play several different roles in the education offerings in a state. The programs offered can be broken down into three major categories: college degree/transfer programs, high school or remedial education, or vocational/technical training.

College Degree/Transfer Programs

Community or junior colleges offer a two-year associate degree program. An associate degree will generally require 60 to 90 credits depending on whether the school is on a semester or quarter system.

The open-door nature of most two-year college admissions is generally very simple. Many of these schools only require an application and may not even require transcripts or college test scores. However, some schools may require you to take placement exams to evaluate your basic academic skills such as math and writing.

Oftentimes students choose to complete their first two years at the community or junior college, before transferring to a four-year school. The cost of tuition and fees at these two-year institutions are considerably less expensive than a four-year school. This can be a great value for veterans using their G.I. Bill to pay for school. Your MGIB benefits will pay you the same entitlement whether you attend your local Junior college or Stanford.

Vocational/Technical Programs

More and more veterans choose not to pursue a bachelor's degree program and opt to use their G.I. Bill benefits to help pay for a vocational/technical program(VT). Most VT programs are shorter in length and may be completed in one to two years of training. VT programs can vary from the building trades, electronics, computers, or culinary sciences just to name a few. Many VT programs relate directly to occupations and experiences you have gained while in the military. If this is the case, check to see if your military training can be used to meet some of the program requirements.

You should also ensure that your program of interest has been approved in your state for veterans' training. This is an important question to ask the schools VA Certifying Official.

VT programs are a great option for veterans not interested in additional education and more interested in getting back to work in the civilian world as quickly as possible.

You will find that some VT programs can be very expensive. This is particularly true for some of the high-tech training programs offered by computer software companies. In some of these cases, the VA may be able to help pay for the high cost of this training through a program called accelerated payment. Rather than paying you on a month-to-month basis, accelerated payment participants will receive a lump-sum payment equal to 60 percent of the cost of tuition and fees for the program.

High School Completion/Refresher Education

Since most service branches require either a high school diploma or GED the question of earning a high school diploma or GED is not typically an issue for veterans. However, the need for a refresher education becomes important for some who have been out of the education setting for an extended period of time. Most four-year colleges or universities expect that entering students have all the basic skills needed to be successful such as reading, writing and math. So many four-year schools do not offer these types of classes for those who might benefit from additional work building these most important of skills. The community or junior colleges offer many of the sub-college level classes you might need to ensure future success. The VA understands that having been out of the education loop for a number of years may require some brushing up on basic skills. So you may use your education benefits to cover the cost of remedial courses.

Enrolling in remedial or refresher courses will not prevent you from taking other courses towards your major or intended program. However, doing so should be done under the advice and supervision of an academic advisor.

The Four-Year College/University

Entering a four-year program will require a more intense application process. Schools require official copies of transcripts, application fees and recommendations or even an interview. In addition, some may require SAT or ACT college entrance exam scores and or a written essay. Many four-year schools have application deadlines.

To begin at a four-year institution it is generally not necessary to decide upon a specific academic major. A student's first-year program can generally consist of working on general education requirements as well as taking entry-level courses in majors or programs of interest. In fact, the VA allows you to declare a major as late as their junior year of college.

Additionally, a four-year college offers more than an academic experience. These colleges offer a social and cultural education as well. A college education can take place in more places than in a classroom or laboratory. Allowing yourself four years to develop relationships with staff, faculty and your fellow students is all part of a well-rounded college experience.

No matter whether you choose a two-year or a four-year school, no matter what your area of study or training, there is one thing that will help you make a successful transition - planning. It may take at least a year of research to find the right program. In some cases, it may take less, but do not be surprised if it takes even longer. The use of the Internet will enable you to gather vast amounts of information from anywhere in the world. Most schools have expended huge amounts of time and energy to make sure information about their school and programs are available to both the casual and serious browser.

Read everything you can about your schools of interest and their programs. Develop a list of questions you can ask that have not been covered in the literature or on the website. Request the name of a knowledgeable person who can help you learn the answers to your list of questions.

Finally, be selfish and indulgent. This will be the best time in your life to pursue your goals and explore new ideas and interest. Schools are there to promote such exploration and to challenge you both personally and intellectually. Enjoy your life as a college student and all it has to offer.

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