Military jobs and training can provide service members with in-depth technical expertise — but how to convert that knowledge into success in the civilian world isn't always obvious.
"They have that technical experience, but they really don't know where to plug that in," said Gregory Scargall, veterans resource specialist at Santa Fe Community College. With the right education at a good technical school, though, "they're able to re-harness some of that experience."
Scargall's school, based in New Mexico, topped our 2015 Best for Vets: Career and Technical Colleges rankings. Fayetteville Technical Community College in North Carolina; Virginia College, headquartered in Alabama; The Los Angeles Film School in California and Thomas Nelson Community College in Virginia rounded out the top five.
These rankings evaluated schools that responded to our detailed survey of more than 100 questions and indicated that they were career or technical institutions. We will publish a similar review of more traditional colleges and universities next month.
Based on their responses to our survey, as well as Education Department data, the schools were evaluated on their culture, student support, academic policies, academic quality and financial considerations.
On average, vets made up about 13 percent of the enrollments of schools responding to the survey.
Responding schools appear to be on board with recent federal initiatives related to military education. Nearly nine in 10 told us they have signed on to the White House's Principles of Excellence for military education. More than eight in 10 said they have signed on to both the first and second versions of the Memorandum of Understanding that the Defense Department has tied to its tuition assistance program.
Better than six in 10 responding schools told us they have military or vet groups on campus. However, only 43 percent told us they have a veterans office, something that vet students have indicated is very important to them.
More schools have begun to track how well their military and vet student populations are doing academically, but it's still not a majority. Only about four in 10 schools were able to provide any military-specific academic outcome data.
And while career and technical education programs often can be less costly than four-year degrees, survey responses indicated that vets still could end up digging in their pockets for tuition costs. Just half of schools have undergraduate tuition rates at or below the $250-per-credit-hour limit set for military tuition assistance. For graduate education, it's less than three in 10.
For vets, the outlook was a bit better. While a majority of schools had costs that exceeded what the Post-9/11 GI Bill covers, most participated in the Yellow Ribbon Program to make up the difference. After Yellow Ribbon is accounted for, Post-9/11 GI Bill users end up paying nothing out of pocket for tuition at about six in 10 schools.
Nearly two-thirds of schools told us that their senior leadership ranks include either a current or former service member or a military spouse. Roughly six in 10 train administrators, teachers or the general student population in military issues.
Scargall said a technical education can provide service members with a wide variety of options, from becoming an independent contractor to hooking up with a big company and joining the green building and design wave.
"There's some really cutting-edge stuff happening here. It's not just learning. It's innovation and being able to actually create," he said.
What if you don't want to continue down the career path Uncle Sam started you on?
Matt Thewes, director of veterans services at Fayetteville Technical Community College, worked three jobs in his 21-year Air Force career. When he took off the uniform, he didn't want to do any of them. So instead, he relied on some of the other things he learned in the military — hard work, leadership, management. He went back to school and is now in a completely different field.
Thewes' school helps counsel vets who are unsure of their next step, both before and after they leave the military. College representatives participate in the transition assistance program at nearby Fort Bragg. And when they become Fayetteville Tech students, vets also can take advantage of classes and services that reinforce some of the more important elements of TAP that they may have missed or forgotten, such as resume writing and interviewing.
Thewes said his school has advised others in North Carolina on serving vets and is happy to offer help to other institutions around the country. Wherever a vet may be located, Thewes advises stopping in at the local two-year school for guidance.
"Walk into your local community college, wherever that may be, and say, 'I'm a veteran and I need help,' " he said.
For Alma Campbell, a former Army sergeant, that local school was Fayetteville Tech. Its active veterans office and a campus size that was not tiny, yet not overwhelming, has made for an easy transition, she said.
"They know how to help you," she said. "I was a little bit scared of going back to school full time, and this school — it's big but it's small, and so I felt safer coming here."
Online education has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, and more than six in 10 schools responding to our survey indicated they offer at least some degrees entirely online. Still, schools don't appear to be straying too far from their brick-and-mortar roots. Better than three-fourths said most of their students take classes in traditional, in-person settings.
That atmosphere is crucial for Maurice Boddie, a former Army sergeant attending Virginia College. Boddie said he tried several schools, trying out classes both online and in person, before landing at Virginia College.
"Online, you know, you're at home, you have responsibility to do all your work" independently and can interact with classmates and teachers only via computer, Boddie said.
Being able to work with others in person made a big difference for him. "It's just something that you can't get online, having that personal connection."
Mike Betz, general manager for military student initiatives at Education Corporation of America, the parent company of Virginia College and Golf Academy of America, said a good campus atmosphere can be crucial.
This isn't limited to special offices and programs for vets but also should include chances to get accustomed to interacting with civilians again, he said — for example, a cosmetology student freaking out because her hair dye came out an unexpected color.
"They have to know how to deal with that individual, so that they can be successful back in civilian life," he said.
Best for Vets: Career & Technical Colleges 2015