Higher-education officials note that many military service members join the armed forces in part for the educational benefits, so it's no surprise to campus decision makers that soldiers want to continue their school work, even in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
While soldiers' schedules are often hectic and sometimes unpredictable, student servicemen and women in the Adelphi-based University of Maryland University College's overseas military program attend class regularly and keep up with assigned readings, homework and upcoming exams, said Allan Berg, director of UMUC programs in Europe and the Middle East.
UMUC, with multiple educational sites in Afghanistan and Iraq, and American Military University - which has offices in Manassas, Va., and offers online courses for deployed service members - are two of the Washington, D.C. area's most prominent options for soldiers in America's two Middle Eastern battlefields. UMUC serves about 10,000 deployed soldiers, according to Berg. American Public University System, which includes AMU, has more than 70,000 students enrolled in online courses worldwide, according to the school's website.
"Taking advantage of tuition benefits is something many soldiers want to do right now," said Berg, who teaches a psychology course in Iraq during the holiday season. He added that if a soldier misses class, he or she can catch up online, since all course material is posted to class websites. "Everybody wants to take courses at some point... because they understand the value of a college degree. And now, education is even more of a concern for our people given the state of our economy."
George Vukovich, director of military outreach for AMU, said earning college credit during deployment is most attractive for students who never intended to rise through the military's ranks and stay in the armed forces for most of their working lives.
"A lot of them question whether they can sustain 20 years of service to get retirement [benefits]" from the military, he said. "The hope is they can get an education and one day walk into a very high paying job."
UMUC became the first university to serve troops in Iraq with face-to-face classes when the Department of Defense in May 2008 awarded the school a contract that allowed the institution to launch undergraduate and graduate programs there, according to UMUC's website. Two of the UMUC teaching sites in Iraq are found at Camp Victory in Baghdad and Joint Base Balad, 40 miles to the north of the country's capital city.
According to Berg, UMUC also operates educational sites in Afghanistan and Iraq that are run by adjunct faculty and sometimes operated in tents. While some of those adjunct-run sites are in the "hinterlands" of Iraq or Afghanistan, Berg said teaching and coursework quality remain high.
"Students like to come to class; they enjoy that time," he said, adding that about three out of four soldiers take one class at a time for five to eight weeks, three nights a week, three hours a night. "That's part of the reason we have classes around the clock. We want to give them every [opportunity] to learn."
Vukovich said advances in online college courses and Internet capabilities has made web-based learning in battlefields far more common than it was a decade ago.
Still, unreliable connections persist in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, meaning AMU officials keep a constant lookout for student questions and requests in their e-mail inboxes.
"Sometimes they are locked down on web capability because of where they are" in either Middle Eastern war zone. "Every student has different issues. ... We have requests rolling in 24 hours a day, and we want to be there to help them out," he said.
Submitting student aid information and logging on to virtual classrooms are two of the most frequent problems among deployed soldiers taking online classes, Vukovich said. Deployed soldiers' scheduling conflicts don't usually stem from garden variety excuses - oversleeping, for example - so AMU faculty members help service members find ways to finish course work and earn college credit.
"From moment to moment, [soldiers] are not sure where they're going to be," Vukovich said. "They can lose a week at a time ... and our faculty works with them to give them extensions. I don't think anyone is out there punishing deployed people because they missed an assignment on any given week."
While AMU faculty members are willing to let deployed soldiers adjust their class schedules, students are expected to remain dedicated to their daily assignments, readings, and at the end of each term, their final exams, Vukovich said.
"It's something each person has to earn. There's nothing handed to them," he said. "They're earning each credit."
AMU announced in June that the school would add to its 100 online certificate and degree programs when it offers a master's degree in information technology starting in September. The 36-credit hour program would include six core classes and focus on areas such as IT projector management, digital forensics and enterprise software development.