Being in the military is a full-time job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But that doesn’t mean you should let that get in the way of your dreams of achieving an education. Even deployments don’t have to stop your education because many schools offer online classes and many deployed locations now feature educational centers where you can take proctored exams or even take placement exams to test out of college courses.
Let me share with you how I completed my Bachelor’s Degree while on active duty by taking full-time classes, both in residence and while deployed to the Middle East. And no, I didn’t have a cushy office job. I worked as a C-130 mechanic on the flight line, often working 9-12 hour days at home station and 13-14 hour days while deployed.
Be flexible with your educational options
Each school is different and may or may not understand how the military operates. Ideally, you will want to find a school that offers night classes, online learning, or non-traditional course schedules so you can attend regularly.
It also helps to attend classes at a military-friendly university. You may have to compromise with your choice of schools or your degree plan if you want to attend classes while on active duty, but depending on your career goals, it may be worth the compromise.
It’s important to know how you will pay for classes. Hopefully, you will be able to participate in your service’s Tuition Assistance Program. This is how I paid for my college degree. Keep in mind that the amount of Tuition Assistance hasn’t kept pace with the increased costs of college tuition, so you may have to figure out how to pay the balance. It may be possible to do this through a combination of scholarships, grants, additional tuition assistance from the school, or by using your Montgomery GI Bill to pay for the difference,* or paying out of pocket.
*Many people prefer to save their GI Bill until after they leave the military, or they may wish to transfer their GI Bill benefits to their family members. Be sure to give this some thought. Your GI Bill is one of your most valuable military benefits.
Set educational goals
The most important step is to have a goal. I completed a year of college before I enlisted and I completed roughly half of my basics – the classes which are required for most Bachelor’s Degrees. But I didn’t have everything completed. I went to our education center and met with the guidance counselor from one of the schools on our base.
Based on the review of my transcripts and the credits which would transfer over (Basic Military Training, a few credits from tech school, and Airman Leadership School), we determined how many credits I would need to achieve my Bachelor’s Degree. Then we determined which CLEP and DANTES tests I could take to test out of certain classes.
My goal was two fold:
- Test out of as many classes as possible to reduce the time needed to complete my degree.
- Complete my Bachelor’s Degree as quickly as possible
The first goal would directly help the second goal, so I hit it with a vengeance and completed as many tests as I could, leaving me with 10 classes through the university, which also happened to be the minimum number required to take through the school to receive a BS from them (most schools have a minimum number of classes you must take through them to receive a degree).
Once I had my testing out of the way, I looked at the upcoming class schedule and determined which classes were offered at which times, and I tried to forecast my deployment schedule so I could take other classes online.
It took a bit of juggling because some classes are only offered in residence or at certain times, but with a little help from the counselor, we determined the best order to take each class. Being organized takes work, but it can be extremely important if you want to take classes while on active duty.
Be flexible with your work schedule
I was a C-130 maintainer, which required around-the-clock maintenance. The school offered evening classes, so I could work from 0800-1600 or from midnight to 0800. I chose to work the midnight shift because it allowed me to attend classes. It’s also much easier to get the mid-shift than the day shift. I remained on the mid-shift for 2 years (which was a year longer than it took to complete my degree).
Not everyone can work a range of shifts, so try to be flexible and work with your supervisor. Many units and supervisors will support your educational aspirations if you are willing to work with them. See if you can come in an hour or two early, stay late, or volunteer to work an occasional weekend shift if necessary.
Make education a priority
It should go without saying, but if you want to balance your military career, your family, and your education, you need to set priorities. Obviously, your family and career come first, but you will have a hard time if you don’t list education directly after those. I don’t recommend completely dropping your social life and extracurricular activities, but you need to maintain a balance. That may mean skipping some nights at the club or hanging out with the guys a little less frequently. But it also means completing your degree.
I took online classes while I was deployed to the Middle East. We typically worked 13-14 hour days, with about one day off each week. You could usually find my nose buried in a book or writing a paper whenever we had downtime. The same for whenever I had a day off. I would usually grab a couple of extra hours of sleep, head to the gym, then go to the morale tent with my study materials. Just a couple of hours of dedicated study time makes a huge difference. Then the rest of the day is yours.
Enlist support from friends and family
Education and life are generally easier to handle when your family and friends support your goals. Be sure to tell them how important your dream of an education is and do your best to support them in return.
Remember, each situation, degree plan, unit workload, and other factors are different, so you may need to exercise more flexibility and patience if you want to attend classes while on active duty. I feel very fortunate to have completed my Bachelor’s Degree while on active duty because it gave me options when it came time to reenlist or separate from the military. Ultimately, I chose to separate from the military because I was ready for a new challenge in life. But I am forever grateful for the opportunity to achieve my degree and make that decision.
Do you have any tips for taking classes while on active duty?