Choosing a College


Choosing a college can feel overwhelming at the beginning. In this section, we will review the different types of schools and provide the information you need to think through the choice of where to apply.

A Comparison of Different Types of Schools

To begin a discussion of choosing a college, we need to talk about the landscape of colleges. The College Board’s Big Future website provides a great overview of the different types of colleges.

Public colleges are funded by local and state governments and usually offer lower tuition rates than private colleges, especially for students who are residents of the state where the college is located.

Private colleges rely mainly on tuition, fees and private sources of funding. Private donations can sometimes provide generous financial aid packages for students.

Liberal arts colleges

These colleges offer a broad base of courses in the liberal arts, which includes areas such as literature, history, languages, mathematics and sciences. Most are private and offer four-year programs that lead to a bachelor's degree. They tend to be smaller environments and are often found in more rural or suburban areas.


Universities often are larger and offer more majors and degree options—bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees—than colleges. Most universities contain several smaller colleges, such as colleges of liberal arts, engineering, or health sciences. Universities tend to have more students, including more nontraditional and even students who commute to campus.

Community colleges

Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees that prepare you to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree. They also offer other associate degrees and certificates that prepare you for a certain career. Community colleges are often an affordable option with relatively low tuition.

For-profit colleges

For-profit schools exist to make money and your GI Bill benefits are appealing to them. Graduation rates at for-profit schools are low and since a huge part of our mission is to help you find a pathway to success, we don’t recommend them.

Choosing Where to Apply

Before applying to college, you have to choose whether or not to follow a traditional, four-year path. Since we won’t be considering for-profit institutions, your other option is to attend a community college. Below is a question set that will help you make your decision:

  • Did you graduate from high school?

  • Did you graduate from high school within the last 4 years?

  • If yes, were you averaging A’s and B’s in high school?

  • Have you taken college courses after high school?

  • If yes, did you do well when you were enrolled there?

  • Do you feel academically prepared for a 4-year university?

You should highly consider starting out at a community college if you answered “No” to any of the questions above. Reputable four-year universities care about military experience, but admissions officers are also hesitant to accept applicants who lack a recent academic record showing they can pass the rigors of a university. With a year or two of college under your belt, those same admissions officers could be receptive to your case.

Community college is a cost-effective way to ease into academic life. It allows veterans with not-so-stellar high school records to build an academic profile that more accurately reflects the person they are now, and not the civilian they were before joining the military.

Going to community college will not prevent you from attending a top-notch university; in fact, many veterans who attend Columbia, Yale, and other prestigious institutions as an undergrad transferred from a community college. And if you have an atrocious high school record but excellent community college grades? Your high school record will hold little weight during the transfer admissions process.

Evaluate College Options Based on Your Needs

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for college. You will want to reflect on the needs you have and then evaluate your options against those needs. You should think about what you need personally, educationally, financially, socially, and professionally for the best college experience for you. There are many questions to ask to determine what you need in a school, but consider a few of the most critical below:

  • What do I hope to study, and what schools are known for great undergraduate experiences in this field?

  • What do I hope to do professionally, and what programs are particularly suited for this path?

  • What kind of learning environment do I want (large vs. small class, access to professors, etc.)?

  • What kind of community (e.g. culture, values, student body size) and campus (rural vs. urban) do I want?

  • What extracurriculars and campus resources are important to me?

  • What are my financial constraints, and what implications does this have for school cost?

  • Do I have geographic constraints or preferences?

Starting with these questions will help you refine your thinking about what you want in abstract. Then it’s time to start evaluating some of your school options.

How to Evaluate Community Colleges

  • Is the financial aid office squared away? Financial aid staff should be knowledgeable, helpful, and resourceful. You should talk to a financial aid officer to learn more about that school's resources and the ways to maximize it.

  • What classes are offered? Check to see if the college offers transferrable courses in your major. You will also want to look at what is required for your major so you know what to expect.

  • Is there a counselor who works with veterans? Having someone who regularly speaks with veterans can be helpful, even if they have no prior military experience.

  • Is there a sizable and/or active veteran population on campus? A support network is essential to college success, and can lead to increased proficiency through study groups, social support and networking opportunities. If a network of veterans cannot be found, try other avenues to get that support network. You can also create your own veterans club or group on campus (which looks great on a transfer application)!

  • Are there honors classes, an honors department, or an honors club? If you want to challenge yourself, try to become an honors student. They sometimes have more opportunities for research and collaboration.

  • Is there a scholarship office? Google is great but not all scholarships can be found online. The benefit of a scholarship office is that it acts as a one-stop shop for scholarship opportunities. If you don’t know, scholarships are free money that help pay for educational and living expenses.

  • Can I get credit for my military experience? This isn’t as important as the other questions, but it can be nice to have your military experience on a transcript. You may have a Joint Service Transcript (JST), which shows that some of your training has been certified by ACE for credit. If not, see if you can get credit based on your DD214.

How to Evaluate 4-Year Colleges

  • What is the actual cost for attendance? Often you won’t find out exactly how much you’ll actually pay until you are admitted, but you should be able to find a ballpark figure by using a net-price calculator. Actual cost of attendance is usually less than the sticker price. This holds especially true for highly selective universities, where financial aid is so generous that you might not need to use your GI Bill at all.

  • (If using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and have 100% coverage) Does the university participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program? If so, how much do they offer? The Yellow Ribbon Program allows for colleges and the VA to each give matching amounts of funding towards your educational expenses on top of your GI Bill, though only for those who are eligible for 100% coverage under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. For example, if your college offers $3,000 as part of the Yellow Ribbon Program, the VA will also give $3,000 towards your tuition. This could save you thousands of dollars every year.

  • What is the reputation of the institution? Find out how well established the programs you’re interested in are. Check online and see what former and current students say about the college and the quality of education.

  • Will you need to take the SAT/ACT? Many schools are test-optional, but there are still a handful out there that require testing within the last five years. Research each school you are interested in to find out what their policies are.

  • How well does the university prepare you for your future career or graduate school? Each college has a career services office. On their websites, you can usually find data about what students have majored in, what kinds of jobs they get after graduation, and what their annual pay is. You can usually find the same information for grad school, too.

  • What kinds of opportunities are there for students in your potential major or field of study? Say that you want to be a medical doctor; specifically, one who specializes in psychiatry. In that instance, you would check for internships and work-study opportunities with hospitals or clinical psychology labs. Work/volunteer opportunities will do three things: (a) internships or research within your field of study will give you an insider’s look into your potential future career; (b) networking opportunities will arise from close contact with working professionals; and (c) those jobs look great on a graduate school application or job resume.

  • What are the retention and graduation rates? This will tell you how many freshmen returned and what percentage of students graduate. You will likely find less support and resources at schools with low graduation rates.

  • (For transfer applicants) How many of my community college classes are transferrable? The answer could mean another year or two of college.

  • Are there veteran-specific resources? Each college has a School Certifying Official, a person who will verify your attendance and benefits with the VA and will be a valuable resource for you.

  • Is there an active veterans population? Having that support network can serve you in many, many ways, from networking and job opportunities to a source for study groups. A campus-based veteran organization can help you adapt to college life.

  • What else am I looking for? Decide for yourself what else you are looking for in a university, from location to the kind of housing that is provided. The above questions are just meant to help you get started.

Building a Balanced Application Approach

The four-year university admissions process for hopeful transfers or freshmen is labor-intensive, requiring time and thoughtful coordination to bring together all the necessary parts. Thus, you need to refine the list of universities you have evaluated individually into a coherent, balanced list. It needs to be coherent in that all the schools should meet your needs and be great places for you to study. It should be balanced in that it reflects a total number of schools that is achievable to apply to in one application cycle, and that you are likely to get into at least some of your options.

To balance the list of schools to which you are applying, you will want to ensure you have some “reaches” (schools with very competitive admissions processes), some “safety schools” (schools you will likely get into), and a few in between. As you refine your list, there are a few things to remember:

  1. Don’t self-select out of competitive programs: Make sure you pursue some reach schools. Get feedback from your Ambassador and Service to School on your overall application about whether your reach schools make sense. You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

  2. Safety schools need to be viable options: Online and for-profit/predatory “colleges” are still not good options, just because they are easy to get in to.

  3. Do your research to find the right schools for your list: Published school rankings are not an established, objective review of all schools in order of quality or competitiveness. While not all schools are equal, even prestigious institutions may not have what you are looking for. Case in point: Stanford University claims to have the best psychology department in the world, but it does not have a clinical psychology program for undergraduates. On the other hand, the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) has a world-renowned clinical psychology program. What the Stanford-UCLA example shows is that you cannot rely exclusively on name recognition when evaluating universities. You need to know what you want from an undergraduate institution before you can rank your choice schools. ‌

The experience of picking and balancing the schools you want to apply to requires effort. There is no substitute for going to campus and talking to students and staff; reading reviews online and looking for red flags; ignoring the pretty brochures and studying the course list for your potential majors. You’ll have your work cut out for you, but it should also be exciting. And please reach out to Service to School anywhere during this process, we are here to help you.

Special Considerations for Active Duty Applicants

Shifting from active duty to full-time school can be a culture shock. For many of us the first question is, “Where do I even start?” Here are some insights to support your transition from service to school.

Know Your Application Deadline

How much time you have left on active duty and your college admissions deadlines will determine a lot of your planning, so we suggest you make an application timeline. For example, the application deadline to attend University of California and Cal State schools is almost one-year before matriculation (when you enter college). If you miss the deadlines for your choice school, though, don’t despair! Many community colleges have rolling admissions, meaning you can apply almost right up until classes start.

Should I Take Classes on Active Duty?

Maybe you are thinking, “I have more than a year left on active duty, should I knock out some classes now?” Here is something to consider if you have zero college credits and are considering taking classes: transfer admissions are generally much more competitive than freshman admissions. However, sometimes a school will have you apply as a transfer even with zero college credit just because you are older and more experienced than most freshmen. On the other hand, taking some basic classes using a tuition assistance program could save you from sitting through some potentially dull, but required, classes once you’re out. If you’re set on taking classes, look at the basic degree requirements for your school of choice and try to knock out some of those to save money.

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