Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify Randy Plunkett’s teaching history.
You’re ready to turn your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits into a degree. So, should you go to school in a traditional classroom setting or online?
If you’re looking for flexibility, online may be your best option. If camaraderie and collaboration matter more, in-person could be the better bet. But there are many other things to think about:
On campus means more money (for you).
One key difference between the two paths is how much you’ll receive from the Veterans Affairs Department each month. Be prepared for smaller checks if you go to school online. The GI Bill covers all in-state tuition and fees at public institutions and up to $23,671.94 at private schools. Veterans also get a monthly housing stipend, which is calculated based on the location where they take the most classes.
Housing stipends are equivalent to what the military would pay an E-5 with dependents in that location. However, if you go to school 100 percent online, you’ll only receive half of the national housing allowance average, or $825 per month, according to VA.
This has been a point of contention for some in the online education space, including American Military University, the fourth-largest enroller of students using the GI Bill to pay for school. “Veterans would further benefit from a change in policy to grant them the same housing allowance whether they choose to study online or on campus since their housing expenses are identical,” John Aldrich, AMU vice president of military outreach, said in an email.
Regardless of your opinion on the housing stipend policy, it’s the law, so you’ll want to consider it as you make this decision.
Online means more flexibility.
“As a nontraditional student, you have demands in life that traditional students do not have. You’re more likely to be married. You’re more likely to have a family and to have a part-time or full-time job,” said Barrett Bogue, vice president for public relations and chapter engagement at Student Veterans of America, an organization that has done extensive research into the student veteran population. These are all factors that are bound to play into your decision.
If you’re still on active duty, there are more question to consider, according to Amanda Mitchell, project specialist in the Office of Military Affairs at Liberty University, another top enroller of GI Bill students. For example: Is there a chance you may have to miss in-person classes due to training activities, temporary duty, or even a permanent change-of-station move?
“Online programs with no set log-in times can easily meet those demands that come with military or civilian life,” said Mitchell. “In-person programs may have a more rigid structure that students would need to navigate when things come up.”
Liberty has a physical campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, as well as a robust online program. According to enrollment figures provided by Mitchell, the overwhelming majority of the school’s 30,000 military-connected students, including service members, veterans and spouses, have opted for the online option.
Online education has two structural advantages, said John Kamin, assistant director of veteran employment and education at the American Legion. One is the flexible scheduling, which can lead to faster graduation. “The capability to accelerate learning is likewise invaluable for veterans who, due to military learning and experience, can breeze through typical course requirements,” he said. The other major benefit, Kamin said, is that the semesters are generally less regimented, meaning students aren’t tied to the traditional semester start and end dates.
At AMU, for example, students can enter classes monthly, and the terms are eight to 16 weeks long, Aldrich said.
Research is important.
A good place to begin is the GI Bill Comparison Tool. Here, you can find everything from how much a school costs to student veteran graduation rates.
Another thing to consider in your research, especially if you’re leaning toward online education, is that you can still go to a well-respected, selective institution.
“Schools that you may have assumed don’t have a traditionally online presence do, and it’s certainly worth pursuing,” Bogue said, naming Arizona State University and Purdue University as examples. “Don’t assume that the schools that are advertising to you are the only destination that’s available to you for online education.”
You should also look into how well schools support their student veterans, whether through military-specific tuition rates or services.
“Regardless of whether the school offers programs in-person or online, students should definitely look at what kind of support the [school] offers to promote connection and healthy learning environments,” Mitchell said.
Your learning style matters.
Are you the type of person who’s going to get as much out of a class you take in front of a computer screen as you would behind a desk in a classroom? That’s an important question to consider, and it’s worth getting other people’s opinions, said Randy Plunkett, assistant vice president of military initiatives at Southern New Hampshire University, which has both in-person and online options for students.
“Talk to former teachers, talk to people you’ve worked with, talk to people who’ve trained you or you’ve trained, talk to people who are in school now,” he said.
Plunkett has taught classes both online and on campus and said it can sometimes be a challenge for professors to maintain the same level of interaction, as well as adapt to various types of learning styles, for students taking the class online. That’s getting better, Plunkett said, but ultimately, “a lot of what you get out is what you put in.”
Human contact is important.
Student veterans can grow intellectually and personally by learning alongside other people, with whom they can talk and interact, Kamin said.
“This has the potential to be especially profound to veterans who may discount traditional students and peers who do not have the real-world experience that they have,” he said.
Another underappreciated advantage to attending classes in person: networking opportunities, which may even lead to a job. For example, Student Veterans of America recently launched a coalition comprised of a few dozen large companies that have pledged to engage, mentor and hire veterans who are a part of SVA chapters on college campuses.
More broadly, peer networks can be vital to your success in school, Bogue said. If you’re on a campus, see if your school has an SVA chapter. If you’re online, find a way to get involved with a local veterans group such as The Mission Continues, American Legion or VFW.
It could depend on what you want to do next.
Knowing your end game is another way to make the decision. Take a cue from the Army Field Manual and its emphasis on reverse planning, Kamin said.
Start with your dream career goals. What do you need to get there? A certificate, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree? Then think about what life is like for you today. If you’re already employed at a company where you’d like to stay, online education may be the best solution. On the flip side, if you’re interested in changing careers or aren’t quite sure what you want to do next, in-person classes could be better for developing those professional goals. Students can build face-to-face relationships with classmates and professors that could later become job references. They also get exposure to professional development events at the school and can join on-campus groups that can help build confidence for a new career, Kamin said.
Aldrich contends that online education can also be effective for career development. “By studying online, veterans interact with a more diverse range of civilian classmates, adding new perspectives to help them develop needed private-sector skills,” Aldrich said.
You can do both.
There is a way to have your cake and eat it, too: Take at least one class in person.
For example, if you do go to a local community college for at least one class, VA will base your housing stipend on that campus, so you can get the benefits of attending school mostly online, if that’s what you choose, while still getting the in-person college experience.
“Don’t let fear dissuade you from taking either path,” Kamin said. “Your country believes in you, and the legacy of success you leave will preserve the availability of the GI Bill for America’s (next) generation of service members.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.