For Joe Bayron, 42, the choice to pursue an online degree was an obvious one.
As a part-time flight instructor for the Air Force Reserve, he regularly bounces between his home in Florida and his military base in North Carolina. With that schedule, he felt an on-campus program wasn't an option.
"It's just a convenience issue," says Bayron, who is in the graduate nursing program at Indiana's Ball State University. "I can study at my own pace."
Bayron is one of the thousands of service members and veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill this year. Those cashing in their federal dollars have a choice to make: pursue an online degree, or attend a brick-and-mortar school.
Online programs can offer a variety of benefits to veterans, including flexibility and a gentler transition back to civilian life. But they can also pose challenges in the form of a heavy workload and a lack of face-to-face interaction.
"If you're going to be a student, you need to recognize where you are in life," says Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, an advocacy group for veterans in higher education. "Choose programs wisely."
Online programs are convenient for nontraditional students juggling work, school and family, but they may have specific benefits for former and current military members.
Service members are particularly transient, often moving from base to base. Distance learning programs allow troops to study anywhere, be it Kentucky or Afghanistan. Online programs also allow students to study at any time of day – a perk for veterans accustomed to working unconventional hours.
"The flexibility is huge," says Raymond Lee, an Army veteran who served in the first Gulf War. He says he wakes up at 3 a.m. – a holdover from his military days. Still, he says his schedule doesn't get in the way of his online MBA program at Kaplan University.
Distance learning programs can also be good options for veterans who aren't quite ready for the traditional on-campus experience.
Beck Hannaford, Ball State's veterans benefits and financial assistant coordinator, says it's common for veterans on campus to field insensitive questions – including what roles they played in current conflicts – from classmates with little understanding of what it's like to serve in the military.
"A lot of veterans are very uncomfortable when they return to a traditional campus," he says. "They'll come in and say to me, 'What are these stupid questions the 18-year-olds ask me?' It's a problem."
Adding to their challenges, veterans returning to school must navigate a bureaucracy that is very different from the highly structured one they encountered in the military. Tasks such as ordering books or registering for classes can seem daunting without guidance.
Matthew Barth, a 29-year-old Navy veteran, says he took his first on-campus college courses about a year ago.
"I was worried about where my classes were and how everything works," says Barth, who is now enrolled in an online bachelor's program at Excelsior College. "There is less to worry about and more familiarity when you're just taking online classes."
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Veterans dealing with physical or invisible wounds can have an even harder time adjusting to life on campus.
"Many veterans are coming back with transition issues, whether it comes from traumatic brain injury or PTSD," says Ball State's Hannaford. "Those cause problems in the classroom and make you feel uncomfortable."
Hannaford says he's worked with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who face a range of challenges. Some, recalling explosions, refuse to sit in classrooms with or without windows. He says one of his students ran out of a class when the government tested tornado sirens because they reminded him of Scud missiles.
Despite the various benefits of online degree programs, veterans and service members should also be aware of their potential drawbacks.
Some veterans, for example, say they learn better when they have face-to-face interaction with peers and instructors. Others want the camaraderie and networking that come with student veterans groups.