Signing up for the Army in Charlestown, W.Va., isn’t just the start of your military career; it can also be the start of your college education. And forget what you’ve heard about rising tuition: This is free.
Mountwest Community and Technical College in nearby Huntington, W.Va., has teamed with Army recruiters to offer a free, three-credit-hour class to new recruits. Recruiters teach about 60 percent of the class, focusing on military basics, while Mountwest teaches the rest, focusing on how soldiers should handle their finances and what they need to do to make sure they receive college credit for the skills they learn in uniform, according to Cory Payne, the school’s military programs coordinator.
“We sit down, and I go over every credit hour that they earn and how it could be applied to a degree,” Payne said. “We billed it as the hometown college taking care of the hometown recruit.”
Payne is taking the concept beyond that hometown, he said, providing guidance for similar programs in North Carolina and Texas.
Mountwest tops our second annual Best for Vets: Career & Technical Colleges list. Fayetteville Technical Community College in North Carolina; Virginia College, headquartered in Alabama; Trident Technical College in South Carolina; and Virginia’s Thomas Nelson Community College comprise the rest of the top five finishers.
About 80 schools responded to our survey of colleges, indicating that their institutions were career and technical colleges.
Overall, the results demonstrated that schools are very accommodating to vets in some areas but still sorely lacking in others.
Nearly every school responding to our survey signed at least one version of the Defense Department Memorandum of Understanding, which is now required for institutions to be eligible for military tuition assistance funds. And the vast majority — some 87 percent — signed the stricter version of the two MOUs, which requires colleges to adhere to certain policies that can benefit military students.
Better than three quarters of respondents said their schools accept college credits recommended by the American Council on Education, or ACE, which ties credits to certain types of military training
Six in 10 reported having at least one current service member, veteran or military spouse in an administrative or senior leadership position at the school.
However, those school leaders could have a hard time tweaking their institutions to improve academic success rates for military students, because most don’t know how they’re doing in the first place. Nearly three quarters of respondents said their schools don’t track retention or graduation rates for students with ties to the military.
The tuition rates at many institutions could leave service members and vets digging into their wallets. The $250 federal cap on military tuition assistance was broken by at least some undergraduate programs at 45 percent of responding schools and 65 percent with regards to graduate programs.
At just over half of private schools, at least some undergraduate programs exceeded the $18,077.50 tuition cap set by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and that rose to six in 10 for graduate programs. Public school tuition is fully covered by Post-9/11 at in-state tuition rates, but about 46 percent of respondents said their schools did not waive residency requirements for vets, meaning that the vets could get saddled with out-of-state tuition that Post-9/11 doesn’t fully cover.
Nearly two-thirds of schools indicated that they don’t have a veterans office, and a similar number reported having no student veterans groups.
Many schools are developing specialists in veterans and military financial aid. Among them is Virginia College, which has a team of about 10 people who spend most of their time processing such aid for that school and others affiliated with its parent company, Education Corporation of America, said Mike Betz, the company’s general manager for military student initiatives.
“What we found is that the veterans educational benefits ... the processes, the forms, even the cycle for accounts receivable was so different from the traditional student finance that it served well to break that out,” Betz said.
Another aspect of higher education that has traditionally frustrated vets, transfer of academic credits, is also being revisited by some institutions.
Trident Technical College Registrar Pamela Droste said her school was “very selective” about awarding academic credits but held a workshop last year to review those policies.
“We broadened tremendously after learning more about how the ACE guidelines worked,” Droste said. The school’s new standards are “closer to the reality of what students should get.”
Bill Buckner, Fayetteville Technical Community College’s coordinator for military programs, said that technical schools can be a good choice for veterans who learned skills in the military that they want to carry over to civilian life. Vets with military backgrounds in aircraft maintenance or automotive repair, for example, can use technical education to get the credentials needed to continue such work outside the military.
“We recognize that veterans have a lot of skills,” Buckner said. “What we are trying to do is apply practical courses ... that take advantage of their skills.”
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