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Education Regrets? How to Avoid Them

Graduation Cap and Books

When we talk about regrets in military life, no one ever mentions the queen size box spring that didn't fit up the stairwell in Germany -- who could guess?

They don't regret the job with the crazy boss. That was a learning experience.

They don't regret that PCS move with a newborn during a deployment. That had to be done.

When it comes to regret, military spouses most often say they regret their choices regarding education. Do they regret what they studied? Do they wish they had tried harder? Finished sooner? Got better grades?

We reached out to military spouses to ask them directly what they would do differently if they had another go at their education.

One wife said she would have waited until she was done with school to be with her soldier.

Another lamented that she must forgo the degree she wants because she and her husband can't afford the gas to school. The only school in the region that offers her degree program is 45 minutes away.

Still another spouse said that she regrets the limits of online education. She's done the most she can and is having a hard time finding work.

All of these challenges are certainly regrettable, but they are also ones you can plan for -- and work around. Here's how.

Plan wisely

This one seems like a no brainer -- after all, planning your educational path is as logical as eating breakfast. But a lot of us skip breakfast because we are in a hurry, and even more of us fail to think through the long view of our education before we get started.

"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do for college," says Karen, an Air Force wife who was delighted to move in with her husband after he proposed. She was shocked to learn that picking up school in Florida wasn't as easy as she hoped it would be.

"I figured I'd just sort of start over," she said. "But it didn't work like that at all."

If you are planning to go to school, plot out the next few years on paper the best you can. Is your spouse likely to be stationed at the same place for the duration of your education? If so, sink into your local opportunities.

If there is a move you are guessing about in the near future, think about options that can travel: Classes that can count for credit at another school, degrees that another college is likely to have. 

"If you'd told me that 10 years ago," Karen says, "I would have thought you were crazy. Of course, it would all work out. Now, I get what you're saying." 

Really investigate your school

Planning for college is more than just laying out your academic plan, though. You need to spend some time thinking hard about which school is right for you.

"I didn't really understand about accreditation," Karen says. She attended a small, Christian school in rural Michigan. "It was the local college," she explains, "and I was just really happy I got in."

What Karen didn't realize was that the school was not accredited by the regional association of colleges.

"I just thought all accreditation was the same," she said. "I mean, it said COLLEGE. I thought that meant they're all the same. But this one wasn't a real college, like ‘real' accredited, and so I couldn't transfer any of my hours or use the time toward another degree."

College accreditation is a tricky thing. For schools, it's a complicated process to prove that they really do deserve to stick the word "college" in the title.

For students, it's a guidepost for whether they should devote their time and money to the institution and the degrees it offers. 

Attending an unaccredited school -- or a school accredited by lesser standards -- can mean trouble with transfers, certifications or applying to advanced degree programs.

Look for schools accredited by the regional associations of colleges and schools like the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, the Middle States Association of Schools and College, the New England Association of Schools and College, the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Another wife explains she made the opposite mistake: As a prospective student for an online, for-profit institution, she just assumed that since the school accepted MyCAA, that meant it was a good school.

"What I learned was that the online university I was encouraged to attend and everyone I knew was going to just wasn't that great," explains Leslie. "I thought it was going to be as good as our local college, but employers just aren't looking at it that way."

Leslie is a Navy wife who lives in San Diego. She was really excited about going back to school and enjoyed her time and classes.

"I took a psych class in my pajamas," she laughs. "It was great!"

Employers didn't agree. "I was looking for basic admin jobs -- secretary, something like that," she says. "But they wanted recommendations from teachers who could say that they saw how organized and efficient I was in person and talk about my personality. My teachers didn't know me that way."

If you are considering an online program, take some time to look beyond the degree.

Can you do any networking in the program? Can you meet people who will help you get jobs? Will your teachers really know you and be willing to give references for you?

"That's what I should have thought of," Leslie said. "That's what I would change."

Think about the job you want most

We know that for many spouses, sometimes a job, any job is really what you need.

But to get any job, you need to know what job you want specifically -- the one that is best suited to your skills, personality and sensibilities. 

To get the most out of your education, you need to think about that too. Does the degree you are getting actually help you get that job? Does the job require specific training, certification or higher education you will need to attain after your degree? Will your degree put you on the right track for that?

"Whatever you do, find a major that can help you get a job for real," advises Army wife Kaylen. "I majored in poetry, which is good because I teach English. I could have never majored in 'General Studies' though. No one would know what that means. What can you do with that?" 

Kaylen is a middle school English teacher in Washington. She loves her job, and she is grateful for the education that got her to it.

"I wish I had focused on something else. I'm teaching English only because it's what I studied, not because it's what I want."

Kaylen plans to go back to school to teach high school history, but she is having a difficult time applying to graduate history programs as an undergraduate poetry major.

"Think it through while you still can," she says. "You don't want to spend more time and money going back to school to get a better major later just because you wouldn't spend some time thinking it through about what job you really want when you started out. It's worth it."

Come up with a Plan B

No amount of planning, however important it is, can escape the inevitability of Murphy's Law. Orders might surprise you. The craziness of school or the subject matter of your degree might be more demanding than you planned to accommodate. So before you are knee-deep in tuition bills and babysitters, come up with a catch-all backup plan. Ask yourself: If this degree isn't for me, what other options does my school offer? What is the admissions process? Will these credits apply to another school someplace else? 

"I quit college six times," confesses Karen. "Six times. If I had asked myself these things, I would have finished on time."

Regretting your education choices does not have to happen to you. Take some precautionary steps when you are first starting out, and you will be able to move forward, confident that you made the right choices along the way.

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