College education - a benefit too good to pass up

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Paul Schillo
  • 71st Mission Support Group superintendent
During a recent visit from Chief Master Sgt. Robert Tappana, 19th Air Force command chief, the subject of off-duty education came up several times. Chief Tappana was very clear in that his view is that our education benefits are "money on the table."

In other words, our education benefits are so attractive that not taking advantage of them is unwise to say the least.

Several years ago, I sat on a professional development panel with a few of my peers when a question about the importance of education came up. One of my fellow panelists responded that any education an enlisted Airman earned beyond an associates degree is obtained only at the expense of duty performance, as if doing a great job and pursuing a college education are at odds.

Needless to say I was surprised by these remarks. While I understood his point, and agree there are those who abuse any system if given the opportunity, I profoundly disagreed with him.

So, who's right? It seems to me the answer is obvious.

Education is one of the primary benefits military members get as part of our compensation. It's a win-win for all.

The Air Force gets an Airman who has increased education, enhanced critical thinking ability and improved research skills, while the individual attains skills that help not only him or herself, but the Air Force as well. Experts agree and statistics demonstrate that the more education you have, the greater your earning potential will be during your post-Air Force career.

So how do you get started? I suggest a trip to the education center. They will help you define your goals and how to reach them. Also, take a look at the Air Force Virtual Education Center on the Air Force Portal. It will provide important information and general guidance on a myriad of education related issues.

My advice is to attack your educational goals in bite-sized chunks. This means first and foremost, complete your Community College of the Air Force degree. Your friendly education specialist will guide you on the way to complete this as quickly as possible. You may not realize it, but you've already earned many credit hours as a result of basic military training, technical training and professional military education.

After taking a breath, press on with a bachelor's degree. This has become easier with Air University's new Associate-to-Baccalaureate Cooperative program. Also, the advent of online classes has provided a flexibility to complete college classes unheard of just a few short years ago. You can even take college classes while deployed. The funding is there with tuition assistance and the Montgomery G.I. Bill, you simply have to set a goal and work towards achieving it.

Why stop there? Graduate school is the next stop on the path of higher education. Funding is available just as it is for a bachelor's degree. Why not consider applying for the Air Force Institute of Technology? If that's not for you, take another trip to the education office to see what graduate school options are available.

Sounds easy, right? Well, not quite. Pursuing your educational goals will require you to balance family, work, hobbies, and other needs like never before. It can be done because I'm living proof.

I joined the Air Force in 1981 straight out of high school. College simply wasn't an option. There was no culture of education in my family; most of my siblings didn't even graduate high school. It was nearly 10 years before I "got the vision," and began pursuing higher education.

I was way behind the power curve when I began working on my CCAF degree. But, I set a goal and moved towards it. The college credits for technical training school, PME and other training gave me a great start.

Also, CLEP and Dantes tests were a huge benefit. Over the next several years, I took 30 credit hours free of charge. I finally got my CCAF degree in 1995. What a joy it was getting that diploma, but it was only the beginning of my journey.

I enrolled in a Bachelor's degree program at a private college shortly thereafter. I felt fortunate because they had the exact degree program I was looking for. Unfortunately they would only take 55 of my credit hours and I had to complete 69 more to finish the degree I wanted. It was a daunting challenge.

I began a 15-month, 40-credit hour accelerated program that gave me the core requirements. I still had to figure out how to get the other required credits. I discovered there are many non-traditional ways of earning college credit, including self-study, week-long intensives, testing out and others. I earned credit by doing all of these, and I finished my bachelor's degree in late 1997.

I learned my lesson because I was far more deliberate while working on my Master's degree. I took one class at a time, and between this and several deployments, it took nearly five years to complete the two-year program. With perseverance, I completed it in 2005.

In a nutshell, our education benefits are too good to pass up and I urge you to use them. College isn't easy; it isn't supposed to be. It'll be a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifice, but it's well worth it. I encourage you to set a goal, and work diligently towards achieving it. Before you know it, you too will be numbered among the more than 15,000 enlisted members who have earned at least a bachelor's degree. 

So, what are you waiting for?