The Coast Guard: Serious About Education

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Evanson

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – For an enlisted Coast Guardsman, the last day at recruit training in Cape May, N.J., is the start of a lifestyle few experience. The idea of driving boats headfirst into white studded waves or calling the Caribbean Sea your office is quite unique and desirable. Coast Guard life can resemble the image found on a post card. Yet when a Coast Guardsman’s career comes to an end, real world expectations can hover above like a dark rain cloud.

In this day and age, a college diploma is no longer an option but an expectation.

“If I didn’t have tuition assistance I would not be attending school,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Dorina Goetz, enlisted aide to the Atlantic Area commander in Portsmouth, Va. “I simply can’t afford $1,000 for a four-credit course. Tuition assistance has allowed me to focus on my studies without the heartache of financial hardship higher education normally brings.”

Walk a mile in the shoes of a civilian, it’s quickly realized how fortunate and privileged members of the military are. The thought of paying for medical care, stressing about a roof over your head, or being denied a week off might be as foreign as another language. But to the junior Coastie fresh off his newly minted high and tight haircut and packed sea bag, many of the perks offered by the Coast Guard often go unnoticed, laying idle like a car in neutral. The biggest of them all may be education.

According to a 2004 study by the National Center of Education Statistics, student debt levels have nearly doubled from about $10,000 to about $20,000 in the last decade. By the time a student graduates, nearly two-thirds of students at four-year colleges and universities leave not only with a diploma but a suitcase of IOU’s. Why is this important to Coast Guardsmen? The simple answer is because the opportunity to achieve the title of “college graduate,” is practical and comes without the burden of being hit with costly student loans. It also creates a pathway to be eligible for Officer Candidate School.

On the flip side, although little out-of-pocket expense is necessary, obtaining a college degree and maintaining the devotion to duty the Coast Guard requires is no easy task.

“I am working on a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Touro University International located in California, and they have a great online program specifically geared for military members,” said Goetz. “So far, I have taken five courses, and I just enrolled for my sixth. With tuition assistance, I am able to pursue my goal of graduating by the end of my tour here at Atlantic Area.”

Goetz balances her fast paced schedule with online courses in the evening. If driving a three star admiral isn’t daunting enough, she studies her evenings away staring at a humorless computer screen.

Education isn’t completely free. Liberty is sacrificed, and after a long day at the office or underway deployments, pursuing an extracurricular education may seem impossible or just unappealing. Although difficult, there are many success stories, which give credence to the fact that tuition assistance can provide opportunities beyond the horizon.

“I was able to take advantage of the tuition assistance program and get the maximum funding allowed for my courses,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Waltina Renee Pitts who is stationed at the Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center in Arlington, Va. Pitts attended George Mason University Law School in Arlington, Va., at night while working during the day, earning a law degree in 2003.
“My command was very accommodating when I made the decision to attend law school,” she said. “I never allowed my schoolwork to interfere with my job, and my supervisors were very supportive when I asked to adjust my work schedule to allow me to take a couple of classes that met before the usual evening classes.”

Each member in the service is authorized $4,500 per year in tuition assistance education benefits. In addition to tuition assistance, grants and scholarship opportunities are readily accessible to members. These grants defray additional costs such as textbooks and allow members to achieve their goals sooner rather than later.

“Although tuition assistance did not pay 100 percent of my course costs, it made a dent in the amount I would have had to otherwise borrow in student loans,” said Pitts. “I was also able to take advantage of the Coast Guard Foundation’s grant program, which helped defray the costs of books and parking on campus – expenses not covered under tuition assistance.”

“A member’s decision to take advantage of the Coast Guard’s education benefits should depend on the member’s personal and professional goals, factoring time constraints, program quality, cost and benefit,” said Lt.j.g. Bradley Hanover, education services officer for the Atlantic Area and Fifth District staff. “Our workforce is too diverse to meet everyone’s professional goals, but the goal should be to improve oneself,” he said.

A recent study compiled by the Coast Guard Institute in Oklahoma City shows that $4 million in tuition assistance funds are set aside for enlisted personnel. This is an all-time high. In fiscal year 2006, however, only 14 percent of the Coast Guard enlisted workforce took advantage.

More importantly, having a degree literally pays off in the end. A 2005 U.S. Census Bureau study announced that employees around the country 18 and over with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $51,206 a year, while those with a high school diploma earn $27,915. Employees with an advanced degree make an average of $74,602, and those without a high school diploma average $18,734.

“Having tuition assistance available to pay for school has made my life stress free,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Wayne Bateman, a Coast Guardsman assigned to the National Strike Force Coordination Center in Elizabeth City, N.C. The school work itself is demanding enough, let alone having to worry about how you’re going to pay for it, he added.

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2 Comments

  1. Matthew says:

    With a bachelor’s degree in business is it possible to get promoted from Coastguard to something in an office environment? I’m going into my third year of university for my business degree and am starting to want to go a different direction into becoming a coast guard.

    Thanks,

    Matthew Hachey

  2. cgnews says:

    visit http://gocoastguard.com and look for officer programs