If your high school student is considering military service directly out of high school rather than attending college, you can be supportive of their decision while also beginning the conversation about how college can and should still be a part of their journey post-service. We recommend that families avoid the “military vs. college” discussion, but rather talk about how the two experiences can work together. It’s important that students going into military service understand that they will need to continue their life journey past service — and that college can play an important role in that journey. They will enter the service with a more productive mindset toward their personal success.
We asked Michelle Loposky, a veteran and interim director at the ASU Pat Tillman Veterans Center, to share her unique perspective.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you decided to participate in military service and earn your degree.
I joined the military so I could take advantage of the GI Bill® education benefits. I grew up as an Army brat. My father served more than 20 years. Joining the Army made sense, plus I knew eventually I would go to college. I come from a family of service members and am forever proud of my decision to join. I am a first-generation college graduate and earning my degree was important for my family. As for veterans going on to earn their degree, more than 60 percent of veterans go on to earn their college degrees, according to the Student Veterans of America.
Why do you think some students prefer military service over college?
Personally, military service made more sense than going to college because at the time, I didn’t have family members or relatives who went to college. I didn’t have that path laid out for me as an option. I would say that’s the case for many students, especially first-generation college students. Many who do not come from a military family and don’t have the exposure or support to even consider college decide to join the military instead of going to college. It can also be a good financial option for students. The mindset for these students is financial stability.
What advice would you give a family member or parent on how to begin discussing college after military service? What are some practical steps that parents can take to help their student think beyond their military service?
Decisions to stay in the military or go on to college are about professional and personal development. A college degree will enhance your credentials. Being a veteran stands out to employers because of the skills and experience gained while serving, but adding a college degree will put you in an elite group. There’s a very small number of those who served, and an even smaller number of those who served and have a college degree. Practical steps parents can take to help their student think about college start with first talking about career aspirations and how a college degree could help in reaching those goals. Other steps include researching online together for what schools have to offer, and even visiting a nearby campus and simply walking around to see what it feels like to be a student. A quick story: what truly inspired me to go to college was attending my friend’s convocation. At the time, I was just out of the military and enrolled part time at a community college. Seeing her walk across the stage really affected me. I realized I could do the same, and so I decided to attend full time at the community college and then transfer to a university.
What skills do veterans come to college with that help them be well-prepared to succeed?
There are critical skills veterans do not realize they have that will set them up for success in college, one being they are mission-focused. In the military, we are trained to work toward one mission, whatever that mission is. For veterans going to college, their new mission is to earn their degree. And if they are using their VA education benefits, they know they have a limited number of months covered by the VA. The military also teaches you about teamwork, resiliency, punctuality, being detail- and task-oriented, respecting leadership, time management, and being organized. All of these skills will help a veteran in the classroom. They bring real-world experiences to the classroom. Lastly and most importantly, their level of maturity and responsibility is different.
What types of careers directly fit with the skills gained while in military service?
As a service member, you are trained to do one job in the military, so translating that to a specific civilian job can be tricky unless it’s an obvious translation, such as a U.S. Army medic could consider becoming a nurse or doctor. In my opinion though, the skills one gains while serving shouldn’t limit a veteran to specific careers. As a case in point, I was a U.S. Army medic and now work in higher education. Once I got out of the military, I considered a career in the medical field and took on jobs as a medical biller and ER clerk. Professionally, I was unhappy and unsatisfied. I discovered my interest in higher education once I attended college and fell in love with the idea of working at a university. Going to college allows veterans to see other career possibilities they never considered. Exploration and discovering one’s potential are benefits of going to college.
What myths are out there about college and students interested in military service?
Students interested in military service may view college as an unattainable option because they feel they aren’t smart enough or can’t afford to attend. The myth that college is only for the super smart of upper class is a possible reason students consider military service. Really, success rests on the motivation and goals of the individual. While getting a college degree doesn’t necessarily mean immediate job security, college graduates and veterans are prepared to be successful.
When exploring universities, what are some indicators to military families that the school is genuinely aligned and resourced to support veterans and military dependents?
A university that goes beyond just being military-friendly is what sets it apart from other universities that recognize military families. The genuine approach a university should take is being more of a military-supportive school. Military families should first see what financial support is available for military and veteran-affiliated students, from how effectively they process VA education benefits to available scholarships and grants. Also discover what career development resources are available, such as veteran-focused professional workshops, student employment for veterans and veteran dependents, and even internship opportunities. How well-equipped the university is to support veterans and veteran dependents with specific needs such as counseling, student engagement and academic support is critical. Does the school truly make veterans and veteran dependents feel they matter and that they are valued members of the university community? Most important is how welcoming the university is to military and veteran-affiliated students.