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What military-friendly really means

6 steps to ensure your school supports your military service

When Texas Army National Guard Maj. Michael Liesmann decided in 2006 to pursue a master's degree, finding a school that was military-friendly was key in his college choice.

Deploying to Iraq as the intelligence officer for an aviation unit, the then-captain knew that the unpredictability of life in the desert could undermine his academic progress. Liesmann was thinking of long workdays and missions that might make it difficult to hit the books or find access to a computer, but the reality proved far more challenging.

In August 2006, less than a month into Liesmann's tour, virulent bacteria infected his left eye, damaging two thirds of the organ's field of vision and severely limiting his sight. He spent eight months recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before returning home to Kingwood, Texas, in April 2007 to await a cornea transplant that July.

During the long journey to restore his vision, Liesmann could have given up on earning a master's in homeland security from the online-only American Military University.

He didn't have to.

The school lived up to its claims of military friendliness, Liesmann said, authorizing extensions on classes already underway both at the time of his injury and again when he was recovering from surgery.

Taking advantage of AMU's eight-week semester option — the school also offers 16-week classes — helped him keep his degree plan moving forward, too, Liesmann said.

He was fortunate. He'd done his homework before enrolling to ensure his graduate school experience would be a positive one — whatever challenges life threw his way.

College is a business, and there's a great deal of money to be made from Uncle Sam and his men and women in uniform.

Ensuring your would-be school truly is military friendly not only weeds out the occasional unscrupulous institution, but also makes certain that the school you select is prepared for the unique challenges that come with being both student and service member. Try the following steps:

1. Talk to a military education counselor

"I cannot overstate the importance of a service member working with their education services officer," wrote Bob Bothel, director of Voluntary Education for the Coast Guard, in an e-mail to Decision Times.

"The ESO is much more than a person who approves their tuition assistance application. That person is charged with providing good, solid advisement to our members."

Judy Sternhagen, regional director for the Western/Southwestern region Navy College, agreed.

"Sit down and discuss your options. See what is out there," Sternhagen said. Education counselors offer advice on everything from accreditation and college entrance requirements to tuition assistance and out-of-pocket costs for the student.

"We want them to go in with their eyes open and have the tools to make the proper decisions," Sternhagen said.

She urges students to weigh carefully the advice they get from education counselors at colleges or universities. "Yes, they are an education counselor," she said. "They are advising you. But they are employed by that school."

2. Talk to fellow service members

Military students learn quickly how well a school accommodates their particular needs, said Joycelyn Groot, assistant secretary of the Council of College and Military Educators and employee of California's Coastline Community College.

It's smart to get references from other students, Groot advised.

"They are your best source of knowledge."

3. Talk to the school

"Choosing a school is like buying a car," said Patricia Siulte, education specialist at the Randolph Air Force Base Education Center in Texas. "You have to shop for it."

Siulte said to observe what it's like dealing with the school's administration. How are you treated when you call? If you requested information, did you receive any?

4. Evaluate requirements

Entrance requirements — including high-school transcripts — are often a challenge for people who joined the military because they weren't quite ready for college, Sternhagen said.

Poor performance in a class or two can mean you're applying to college with a grade-point average of less than 2.0 or a transcript with failing grades.

But there's hope.

"The schools that we deal with on a regular basis have entrance requirements different than the typical state school," sometimes waiving requirements such as SAT and ACT entrance exams, Sternhagen said.

5. Check for accreditation

Don't just take the school's word for it, the experts warn.

Make sure the institution is regionally or nationally accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Education Department.

Lists of approved regional and national agencies are online.

One good rule of thumb: The school is properly accredited if it qualifies for the GI Bill or military tuition assistance.

6. Know your rights

Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges is a consortium of more than 1,800 schools that provide educational opportunities for service members and their families.

Member institutions must meet stringent criteria, making them perhaps the ultimate in military-friendliness and generally a safe bet for your higher education experience, said Kathleen Connolly, CCME president and education services officer at Fort Lewis, Wash.

SOC has a Military Student Bill of Rights, and students seeking to ensure their school or prospective school really is military-friendly should examine whether the institution abides by the 10 rights spelled out in the document, Connolly said.

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