College Guide for Military Service Members and Student Veterans

Learn about resources for military students and student veterans available through the nation's top military-friendly colleges.

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by Meg Whitenton

Published on February 25, 2019 · Updated on June 27, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Michael J. Kirchner

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College Guide for Military Service Members and Student Veterans
Feature Image: Roberto Westbrook / Getty Images


College-bound military and veteran students have many factors to consider when exploring college choices. Students with military experience often possess invaluable life experience and career skills. However, choosing a school to support their transition from technical to academic training can be challenging. Many universities and national organizations offer a variety of resources for military and veteran students.

This guide outlines the tools available to military and veteran students considering a college program. Read on to explore resources including skills assessment testing, credit transfer options, and financial aid opportunities for veterans and service members.

Key Trends for Military Service Members and Student Veterans

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 75% of student veterans were enrolled in full-time education in 2018. This trend underscores veteran students' determination to pursue a college education; despite the challenges, a vast majority commit to full-time programs.

In 2018, only 15% of student veterans were 18-23 years old, reports the VA. The majority of student veterans were 24-40 years old. Most student veterans are considered nontraditional students due to their former service and age. About 47% of student veterans were married and 47% had children in 2018.

Business is a popular major among student veterans, according to a 2019 report from Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). The IVMF reports that over a quarter (27%) of all student veterans pursue a business degree. Most student veterans (63%) pursue a major different from their military specialty, the report states.

Post-9/11 veterans have outperformed earlier generations in educational attainment, the IVMF study reports. As college graduates, student veterans also earn a higher wage and enjoy lower unemployment rates than non-veterans in the labor force, according to the report.

As of 2018, the VA found that 62% of student veterans were the first in their family to attend college. This major accomplishment may be especially hard-earned for student veterans with no relatives to lean on for tips and advice.

Challenges and Barriers to Success

Student veterans tend to have less time to invest in educational activities outside of the classroom than non-veterans. Since most student veterans are older than traditional college students, are married, and have children, they tend to have less time for nonessential coursework in addition to their outside obligations. They often require flexible part-time or self-paced online enrollment options.

Veterans often experience difficulty transitioning from a tactical training environment to higher learning. Student veterans bring a variety of experiences to the classroom, and they may struggle to assimilate on campus. Many universities offer well-rounded veteran support services, including counseling and other mental health services, to help these students adjust to college life.

Military service members may struggle to establish state residency if they are frequently reassigned and/or relocated. While moving frequently may be routine for military students, it can present a challenge in meeting state residency requirements for colleges and universities. Military students may seek out an online program with set or in-state tuition rates to learn remotely and avoid strict state residency rules.

Student veterans and military service members often experience mental health issues. Military students may struggle with mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. As many as 35% of military and veteran students have had suicidal thoughts, according to a factsheet from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. Many colleges have expanded their counseling and crisis intervention services to address this concern.

Important Factors to Consider When Preparing for College

Choosing a College

Military and veteran students must carefully consider factors beyond the typical college selection process. All students should consider only accredited colleges and ensure the school offers their preferred major or program.

Many of the nation's top accredited schools offer benefits specific to military students and student veterans, including expanded support services like counseling and career training, a military-friendly credit-transfer policy, and financial aid through programs like the GI Bill®.

Applying to College

Applying to college may also require some extra steps for veteran students. Many schools enable military service members and veteran students to earn credits for prior military training and/or life experience.

Students should consult their school's academic advisors and, potentially, veteran services directors to discuss the best path to enrollment in their preferred major. Many students apply to an online program to enjoy set or in-state tuition rates if they do not meet a school's state residency requirements due to military service.

Paying for College

Like the majority of traditional college students, military and veteran students typically require help paying for college. Military-friendly colleges commonly honor national financial aid benefits including the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, which cover tuition and fees. Students may also qualify for military-specific scholarships and to extend financial aid to their military spouses and dependents.

What is the most important factor military service members and student veterans should keep in mind when preparing for college? question-mark-circle
Portrait of David Hertley, Ph.D.

David Hertley, Ph.D.

“In many cases, people are "looking for a degree" because it leads to advancement in the military or in federal service. If you want a degree that has broader application in the job market then you need to decide to invest your time and effort in earning one.

That means thinking about your strengths and what degrees or majors would lead you toward your desired career, a decidedly different goal than "I just want a degree." This requires research and time on your part to find schools that have the program you want, then to take that list of schools and see which ones offer you the flexibility and the specialized accreditations for that field of study.”

College Resources for Military Service Members and Student Veterans

Veteran Resource Centers: These centers typically offer support by serving as a place for veterans to seek information, relax, and connect with other veterans. Veteran resource centers are often funded by the school and staffed by both full-time employees and student workers.

Career Services: College and university career centers commonly work together with their veteran resource centers to offer career services specific to student veterans, including resume-writing support, mock interviews, and recruitment training for those with military experience.

School Certifying Officials: Every campus that accepts GI Bill benefits has a school certifying official in charge of coordinating with the VA so students receive their VA education benefits. These officials might work at a school's registrar's office or through their veteran resource center. A school certifying official might also act as a veteran services coordinator, or the two roles might be distinct.

VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment: As outlined in the GI Bill, student veterans with a disability ranking and employment handicap can qualify for vocational rehabilitation and employment services on campus. Benefits include training, counseling, and job placement assistance.

Health and Wellness Services and Mental Health Centers: Student veterans can often pursue counseling, physical rehabilitation, and wellness services through their school's health and wellness centers. Schools with a dedicated mental health center may offer veteran-specific services such as group counseling support.

What college services and resources should military service members and student veterans seek out during college? question-mark-circle
Portrait of David Hertley, Ph.D.

David Hertley, Ph.D.

“First, seek schools that have the specialized accreditation to the major you wish to pursue. That is an indicator of the quality of the program and assures employers that you are a product of a strong program.

At least a part-time veteran's program director is also important. The VA changes things on a regular basis and to have someone at the school who is proactive in informing the veteran students of the changes coming up makes the experience less stressful.

Counseling is another benefit to look for. When you've had enormous responsibilities, and suddenly you are surrounded by folks who cannot relate, it can pose some moments of reflection on "Why am I doing this." It's helpful to have someone to talk with about the disconnect between the "college life" and the "real world."”

National Advocacy Groups and Organizations for Military Service Members and Student Veterans

VSOC: Provided by the VA, VetSuccess on Campus helps vets transition from the military to college life. Benefits include on-campus mentoring, counseling, and career services. Currently, 104 schools have an on-site VSOC counselor.

DANTES: Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support offers voluntary education resources through the Department of Defense, including completion programs, counseling, and placement testing services.

SVA: Student Veterans of America is perhaps the nation's most prominent student veteran organization. Chapter members on individual campuses are typically student volunteers who often advocate for resources, build camaraderie amongst veterans, and offer social programming. On-campus services include career support, with broader network benefits including a leadership institute, a national conference, and a legislative fellowship.

VA Pathways Internship Program: The VA offers this pathway to a career in veterans affairs for high school and college students in a qualifying major. Upon completion of the internship, candidates may qualify for temporary or permanent employment in VA human resources, administration, or security.

Safe Place: This national organization provides inclusive safe spaces, including on college campuses, for teens and young adults. While Safe Place emphasizes youth-oriented outreach and prevention services, college students may seek out a designated Safe Place for issues including anxiety, life changes, and suicide prevention.

Frequently Asked Questions About Military Service Members and Student Veterans

true What is the difference between a service member and a veteran?

A service member typically includes any active-duty member of the uniformed services, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, as well as full- and part-time members of the National Guard and Reserve forces.

A veteran may be defined as someone who served in active duty in one of the above armed forces and retired or was released (not dishonorably) from active duty.

However, it's important to note that definitions of what it means to be considered a service member or a veteran vary according to different populations, programs, and organizations. There is not necessarily one correct definition of these terms.

true Do you have to pay student loans while in the military?

The military offers a variety of loan forgiveness programs for students who meet individual requirements. Military student loan deferment and forgiveness may be available to students on active duty or in the National Guard deployed full time or during a war or national emergency.

While requirements vary per program, most loan forgiveness programs offered through the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Defense require a minimum commitment of service and begin payments only after the first year of service is complete.

What is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act?

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003 protects the financial interests of active-duty service members and alleviates their overall financial burden. This law protects service members when it comes to financial issues such as foreclosures, credit card interest rates, civil judicial proceedings, rental agreements, health insurance, and income taxes.

Can I pause college to join the military?

Yes, students can pursue a variety of paths to complete a degree while in the military. Students looking to delay their education to join the military may want to request a course extension or hold, or drop a course.

Others may continue learning during deployment with support from programs like the GI Bill, which pays 100% of tuition costs for active-duty military students and can be applied for up to 10 years after honorable discharge or retirement.

Meet the Professional

Portrait of David Hartley, Ph.D.

David Hartley, Ph.D.

Dr. David Hartley currently serves as the interim associate provost and veteran services coordinator at Clarion University. Prior to his position at Clarion, Dave served in the United States Army for 20 years. Nineteen of those 20 years were spent as a Special Forces noncommissioned officer. As a Green Beret, Dave held positions as a weapons sergeant, an intelligence sergeant, and as a team sergeant of a High Altitude Low Opening Parachute Infiltration Team. Dr. Hartley has held supporting leadership positions at all levels of command up to Special Operations Command, Europe. Dave earned a Ph.D. in organizational leadership at Regent University. He has a master's degree in management from Webster University and a bachelor of science in liberal studies from Excelsior University. Dave has led the Student Veterans Association and is currently the school certifying official for all GI Bill recipients.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at https://benefits.va.gov/gibill/index.asp