Two airmen and a military spouse attending a University of Maryland University College class in Germany discuss course work.

Two airmen and a military spouse attending a University of Maryland University College class in Germany discuss course work. (UMUC photo)

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of an occasional series focusing on educational issues. Today, we spotlight on-base college opportunities.)

Jim Wells’ pursuit of a college education has been an educational experience in itself.

Wells, a master sergeant at Aviano Air Base, entered military service in the mid-1980s.

“When I joined the Air Force, it was for four years to get my GI Bill and get out,” he said. “Here I am about 20 years later and still in.”

And still without his ultimate goal: a master’s degree.

That’s about to change. Wells said he’s spent the past 8½ years getting his bachelor’s degree and pursuing his master’s. He has one class left before earning a master’s in aeronautical sciences from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Wells is one of thousands of servicemembers enrolled in college courses taught on bases throughout Europe and the Middle East. Some joined the service with college degrees or some credits and are trying for advanced degrees — with most of their tuition paid by the government. Others are taking college classes for the first time.

Five colleges and universities offer classes open to troops from any branch of service and all military ID cardholders. They’re under contract through 2013. Much of the tuition for servicemembers is paid for, with some help available for spouses.

Susan Dame and Azela Santana, both military spouses, are pursuing advanced degrees at Aviano and, thanks to the Air Force Aid Society, getting half off their tuitions.

Santana is enrolled in the University of Phoenix’s master’s in business administration program “to further my career,” she said.

Dame, a teacher at Aviano Elementary School, is pursuing an advanced degree to become a guidance counselor.

“I believe in life learning,” she said.

Have plan, will studyCollege representatives say the vast majority of students are geared toward getting a specific degree. That’s because the government generally doesn’t pay for classes — except some language classes — unless there’s a degree at stake.

There are some differences in the way the services approach the process, but for all, prospective students need to meet with a counselor at the education center to come up with a plan. Then students go online to request tuition assistance from the Veterans Administration. After getting approval, they register.

Classes are different in many ways than those offered by stateside colleges. Classroom space is often shared. Some are held in the education center; some in local Department of Defense Dependents Schools facilities; some wherever there’s space.

David Kimmel, director for advanced programs for the University of Oklahoma, said there aren’t Sooners football games for students in Europe to attend. But, he said, “we do everything we can to make our students feel like they’re part of a campus environment, although sometimes it’s very difficult with the distance.”

The traditional school year tends to go out the window. Kate Haworth, the deputy education services officer at Aviano, said there would be five eight-week sessions offered at Aviano’s new education center this year. That schedule is designed to help those who deploy or suddenly find themselves with heavier workloads.

Classes tend to be shorter. Oklahoma, which offers advanced degrees in Europe, sends teachers from campuses in the States to teach weeklong intensive classes. Most of the courses offered, though, are about eight weeks.

John Golembe, European director for the University of Maryland’s University College — which offers the most classes and has the most students — said enrollments are down slightly in recent years. He blames more deployments and fewer troops based in Europe.

But he said Maryland hopes to turn that around by doing a better job of appealing to more segments of the military population, spouses and other civilians.

Golembe said decades ago, institutions were free to offer whatever courses they wanted. While that might sound like a good deal, it often wasn’t, he said. Those offering the classes weren’t necessarily committed to staying around, the quality of education varied and it was often difficult to transfer credits from one place to another.

“There were so many institutions that they were basically falling all over each other,” he said.

So the government decided to ask universities to bid on contracts. Five institutions were awarded specific segments. The government reviews their performance and students’ educational needs, so new courses open from time to time.

Cynthia Pica, northeastern U.S. and Europe regional director for the Navy’s college program, said the Navy officially asks sailors every three years to fill out surveys that include types of classes they’d like to take.

Classes — and the universities represented — vary from base to base. But if a soldier in Germany wants to take a class that’s offered at a nearby air base, he’s free to do so. Of course, Navy bases in Europe are so spread out and isolated, that’s not likely to happen for sailors.

Sign me upHiram Wood, chief of educational services for USAFE, said education is always listed as one of the top factors on why people join the Air Force. He said a general estimate is about 20 percent of airmen on base are enrolled.

That number is also high in the Army, according to Steve Myers and John Rizkallah, education specialists with Installation Management Agency-Europe.

“Today, having a college education is more important than ever if a soldier wants to stay in and have the Army as a career,” Rizkallah said.

Myers said almost 100,000 soldiers around the world are listed in a new registration system that went online April 1.

Soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines aren’t just handed free, easy educations, though.

“VA is a little slow sometimes paying bills,” Wells said. “And that can be a hardship for some when you’re out several hundred dollars. You’ll get your money, though. It might just take a while.”

And Wood cautions that a social life often suffers.

“You go to work, you go to school, you eat a little and sleep a little,” he said. “And there’s not a lot outside that. But an education … no one can take that away from you.”

The five that offer classes

Five colleges and universities have been contracted to provide on-base college courses to servicemembers, their families and civilian employees in Europe through 2013 (with periodic reviews creating the possibility of changes). Here’s a brief look at each institution and what it offers in Europe and the Middle East:

Central Texas CollegePrograms offered: certificates and associate degrees in automotive mechanics, early childhood professions, emergency medical technology, hospitality management, criminal justice, fire protection technology; associate degrees in paralegal/legal assistance, applied management with military science specialization; Microsoft certification

Locations: About 50 sites in 15 countries

Enrollment: 5,173

Staff: 385 faculty members

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical UniversityPrograms offered: associate degrees in aviation management, professional aeronautics; bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics; master’s degree in aeronautical sciences

Locations: 26 sites in nine countries; expansion in Afghanistan, Qatar soon

Enrollment: About 1,000

Staff: About 100

University of Maryland University CollegePrograms offered: bachelor of arts degrees in communication studies, English, history, humanities; bachelor of science degrees in accounting, anthropology, art history and appreciation, computer and information science, computer studies, criminal justice, economics, foreign language (German, Italian, Spanish), general studies, government and politics, human resource management, information systems management, management studies, marketing, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, social science, sociology within general studies; 18 minors available

Locations: More than 70 sites in 16 countries

Enrollment: About 25,000

Staff: More than 500 instructors

University of OklahomaPrograms offered: master’s degrees in human relations and international relations; doctorate degrees in interdisciplinary studies with emphasis in organizational leadership

Locations: 15 sites in seven countries in Europe

Enrollment: Not available

Staff: Varies; instructors are flown in from campuses in States to teach courses

University of PhoenixPrograms offered: master’s degree in business administration; master’s degree in education (with seven different degrees)

Locations: 17 sites in Europe

Enrollment: Not available

Staff: Seven full-time and 30 part-time faculty

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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